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William Smart ’48

William Smart 1948

A straight-shooting journalist, Bill was instrumental in turning the Deseret News, a church-owned newspaper in Salt Lake City, into a regional powerhouse. He was with the paper for four decades, rising to become its editor and general manager for 14 years. The investigative team he established rocked Utah’s establishment by sniffing out scandals, and in addition to being a community leader, Bill helped pioneer televised political debates in the state.

He was the fourth of six children born to Thomas Smart and Nellie Buckwalter in Provo, Utah. Bill loved to read: adventure stories, Richard Halliburton’s travel books, and anything by Jack London. By the time he was 12, he had read all of the books in the junior section of the city library and was accorded a card for the adult section.

The family moved to Reno, Nevada, where Bill got a job delivering the morning paper on his bicycle, taking care not to run over the drunks lying in the streets. Shortly before his final year of high school, the family moved to Portland, Oregon. Acclimating to a new school in such a short time proved difficult. To earn money for college, he worked for a year after graduating. He continued to work throughout his years at Reed, washing pots and pans in the cafeteria, or working in the ice cream store in the student union building. At the time, there were about 650 students attending the college. Bill split his major between history and political science, writing his thesis, “The Oregonian, a Preliminary History,” with Prof. Dorothy Johansen [history 1934–84], whom he adored.

“It was a wonderful school, a wonderful education,” Bill said. “As I think back on my life, I think those years at Reed College were maybe the best years that I had. Reed College had a two-year humanities course that really shaped my life and my thinking. As I look at my attitudes now, and what I’ve done with my life, I go back to that course and those teachers.”

In addition to Johansen, he also gave kudos to Prof. Robert Rosenbaum [math 1939–53].

“Bob Rosenbaum was a great teacher in math,” Bill said, “and I never was any good in math. But I took a class from him in non-Euclidean geometry which also shaped my life. It taught me that there are very few absolute truths; that everything needs examination. It was almost a philosophy course, and it was a most exciting course to me.”

The day after the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bill made his first foray into journalism. The Portland bureau of the International News Service (INS) was managed by his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) stake president, George Scott. (A stake is an administrative unit composed of several congregations.) Though Bill had no journalism experience (save for delivering the paper in Reno), he hoped that with the impending war Scott might take a chance on him and deliver him from washing pots and pans. Scott hired him to manage the bureau from midnight until 8 a.m. Bill attended classes in the day and worked at night. In addition, he played on the college basketball team and worked on the school newspaper. He was burning the candle at both ends, but loving it.

In the summer of 1942, he went to help staff the Seattle bureau during the vacation period. While he was there, the bureau manager died of a heart attack and the assistant manager was called up to service. At the age of 20, Bill ended up being the sole person staffing the bureau. After a brief return to Reed his sophomore year, Bill was called up for active duty as a reservist, first with signal corps training, followed by nine months preparing to be an intelligence officer in the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Wyoming. It was there he met his future wife, Donna Toland.

“I had been dating some other girls who were not Mormons,” he recollected. “I hadn’t been to the church at all during that period. But for some reason I went one day to church in Laramie. It was a testimony meeting. And I sat there and heard a voice behind me, a girl standing up to bear her testimony. I looked around and I said to myself, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’”

The courtship was conducted largely by mail. When he got out of Officer Candidate School, they were married. After he was mustered out of the service, he returned to Reed on the G.I. Bill. Because of his earlier work with the INS, he was able to get a job with the Oregonian. He worked full time and went to college, because by then they had a baby and it was necessary for him to work as he studied to be a history professor.

Just before graduating, he applied for entrance at Harvard and was given a fellowship. The LDS-owned Deseret News was starting a big expansion program, and Alfred Bowen, an apostle in the church and president of the Deseret News, came to Portland for a stake conference. He asked Bill’s old INS boss, George Scott, if he know of any bright young newspapermen, and George told him about Bill. Bowen called him in for an interview and invited him to join the News. Having worked for 40 hours a week while attending school and supporting a family, Bill was tired. He was finishing his thesis and nursing an ulcer. Thinking it would be a good rest before starting at Harvard, he agreed to come to the Deseret News for a year. He started the day after graduation and worked at the paper for the next four decades.

Starting first in sports, Bill moved to the city desk as a reporter. In 1957, he became an editorial writer and was soon the chief editorial writer and then the editorial page editor. He maintained the editorial page responsibilities as he was promoted to assistant general manager and then executive editor.

After Bill became the newspaper’s editor and general manager in 1972, he organized a crack investigative team called Pinpoint that shook Utah’s old guard by exposing a series of scandals. The group he put together included veteran reporter Bob Mullins—whose relentless reporting of a kidnapping and murder in 1962 earned the Deseret News a Pulitzer Prize—and two young, eager writers named Joe Costanzo and Dale Van Atta.

“The thing about Bill was he was courageous,” Costanzo said. “Before the Pinpoint team, the tendency was to be careful about what to report on the power structures in this state. He was willing to take the risk of offending people who previously could count on the News to not offend them.”

Pinpoint won its first investigative reporting award for a series of stories about equipment purchases in Salt Lake County government that benefited certain public officials. “After that,” Costanzo said, “it seemed the Pinpoint team won investigative journalism awards every year.”

Bill was also an early proponent of environmental reporting and a leader in preserving open space. He was director of the Grand Canyon Trust, which worked to protect the Colorado Plateau, of which the Grand Canyon is a part. He was prominent in the effort to make Utah’s Capitol Reef a national park.

After retiring from the Deseret News, Smart continued to consult as a senior editor. He traveled internationally, wrote editorials for the Church News, became editor of This People magazine, and authored or edited nine books, including Words and Actions: An Autobiography, published in late 2016. His scholarly interest in history bore fruit in the award-winning books he wrote, Mormonism’s Last Colonizer, a biography of his grandfather, William H. Smart, and Over the Rim, an account of the first Mormon expedition to Southern Utah in 1849–50, coauthored with his wife.

Donna, his wife of 70 years, survives him, as do his five children, William T. Smart, Melinda Graves, Kristen Rogers, Thomas Smart, and Lawrence Smart.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2018

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