Eulogies For A Great American Patriot And WW II Veteran, Claude Smith (1922-2024)

Roanoke Icon, Business Leader, WW II Vet Claude Smith passed at 101

Claude Nelson Smith, who lived in Roanoke since 1949, the year the Mill Mountain Star was erected, went to his eternal reward on Sunday, Feb. 25. At 101, he was remarkable for his age, full life, and successful entrepreneurship, but also as one of the last WW II combat veterans in our region.

To drive home how Smith’s life spanned such a broad historic era, consider that he was born when Warren Harding was president. Harding was the first president elected after all women in all the then-48 states had been given the right to vote. Harding was also the first president ever to speak over the radio.

Three eulogies were given at Smith’s memorial service on February 29.

The first was prepared by Dan Switzer, Smith’s right-hand man at State Amusement Co., the business Smith started in 1952 and ran for an incredible 72 years. Switzer was so overcome with emotion, he stood at the lectern while his daughter stood by him and read his prepared comments. He explained that, after the 9-11 terror attacks in 2001, Smith was so filled with patriotic fervor, he climbed the 200-foot tower at State Amusement in order to hang a US flag from the top. At that time, Smith was already 78 years old, and none of the younger people dared try.

Switzer added that Smith helped many people over the decades become better people and in many cases, open their own businesses. A habitual tinkerer, Smith would look at any kind of gadget, desk, etc. and say, “It’s good, but they didn’t finish it.” At which point, Smith would dabble with it to make this or that improvement. Switzer said Smith told him, “Every day either try to learn something new, or else help someone else learn something new.”

The service was officiated by Rev. Mark Washington, Smith’s longtime pastor at Hollins Road Baptist Church. In a meeting with family before the service, Rev. Washington said, “I learned some new stories about Claude last night that I’d never heard before, and I knew Claude for 33 years. I bet if we told all the stories we knew about Claude, we’d all be here for a several days.”

During the service, Washington told several anecdotes from Smith’s remarkable life, and some of his character traits that he especially respected, including his faith, diligence, insatiable curiosity, playful spirit, and zest for life.

Referencing Smith’s legendary energy, Washington explained Smith learned to snow ski at 63 and kept skiing till 85. At the end of many ski trips when it was getting dark and colder, all the other skiers suggested calling it a day and heading back to the lodge. However, Smith would chide them with, “Why are you going in so early? Let’s make one more run!”

Washington closed the service with a Gospel presentation and explained that Smith had made peace with God through Jesus Christ many years before, and if anyone present had not done so yet, now would be the time.

At the graveside service, Rev. Washington said some final remarks and a prayer. He explained to those gathered, “This isn’t Claude in this casket. He’s gone, and this is just his body, and his body’s all used up! Claude made the most of the body God gave him,” but now he has a new body in heaven.

The following remarks are the second eulogy from the memorial service, written and delivered by Scott Dreyer:

We are gathered here to mourn the loss of dear Claude Smith, but also to celebrate the life of this great American patriot, probably for most of us the last WWII veteran we will say goodbye to.

Psalm 90:10 says, “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures.” Well, Claude hit 80 at full-speed and added an extra 21 on top of that!

Appropriately, he left this world to be with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. And when I heard his service was to be today, I looked at the calendar and chuckled. Why? Because today is Feb. 29, Leap Year Day. I told my wife, “That’s just like Claude Smith. Do things his way. Don’t be boring and do things the way everyone else does.” So, we celebrate Claude’s life on this odd date that only comes once every four years. It just seemed like a “God wink” and last little joke from Claude.

Claude was born the youngest of eight children in Lynchburg on April 28, 1922, during the “Roaring 20s,” when Warren Harding was president. So, in a family of ten, he grew up learning to work with others. Many believe birth order has a big impact on one’s personality, and claim the baby of the family is often outgoing, confident, creative, quirky, good at problem solving, and thinks the rules don’t apply to them. Knowing Claude, those all sound pretty accurate. 

When he was 7 years old, the US Stock Market crashed, starting the Great Depression. That caused his father to lose his job at the foundry, so Claude left school in 7th grade and the rest of his education is what he made of himself. Even at age 100 and with poor eyesight, he liked to read books, to keep learning. 

Even as a child, Claude showed entrepreneurial spirit.  With windows open all summer because AC hadn’t been invented yet, many homeowners had flies in their houses. So, Claude designed and built small boxes made of wood and screen that he sold door to door as a way to keep flies off one’s toothbrush. Thus began a remarkable business career.

At age 12, during the Depression, he began helping his brother Herbert drive trucks around Lynchburg carrying firewood. 

Since he was just a kid, he had to stand up in order to push down the brake pedal. And even standing up, Claude was too short to see over the dashboard and out the windshield, so he had to lean out the side window to see where he was going as he steered. 

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor about five months before Smith turned 20. He first moved to Newport News to work in the shipyards, and then was drafted into the army and shipped to the Pacific.

As a new GI, Claude and many others were given a series of short tests. One by one they were sent into a room, told to observe what items were in there, and report back what they had seen. Claude had such a great memory for detail and spatial relationships, he was chosen for special duty that he called being a “spy” but today we call it “military intelligence.”

Stationed in the Japanese-occupied Philippines, his spy duty was lonely and dangerous. He had to leave his own units and go forward solo toward the Japanese positions and observe the numbers and locations of enemy tanks, trucks, units, airplanes, etc. He was not allowed to write down anything, but instead had to keep all the details in his mind and then get back to his unit and report on what he had observed. 

Claude said,  “I didn’t much like marching, so I took every class I could in the army–electronics, radio, and it was the three months of learning Morse Code that damaged my hearing.” He reasoned, every hour in a class was one less hour marching out in the tropical sun. Plus, his work with electronics later helped him launch his business in Roanoke. 

Claude earned the rank of Staff Sergeant. By being in the Philippines, he contracted malaria. However, despite his high fever and illness, he still volunteered to climb tall poles in order to set up communication equipment because nobody else in his unit was willing to do it.

When the war ended in 1945, Claude returned home to Virginia and in 1949, the year the Roanoke Star was built and he turned 27, he moved from Lynchburg to Roanoke to take a new job with a pinball machine company, and lived here ever since.

Smith started his own business in 1952. Using his knowledge of electronics gained from the war, Smith placed jukeboxes and pinball machines in restaurants and such. Proverbs 13:11 says, “whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.” By focusing on coin-operated devices, Smith literally built his empire one coin at a time. And he had perfect timing, because the Baby Boom and Rock and Roll Age provided lots of customers.

Claude bought State Amusement soon thereafter and ran it for more than 70 years. 

Smith and his first wife Madeleine had a son, Kenneth, who has been a dentist in the Valley since 1977. 

As Smith built his business, Madeleine kept the books. He said, “She was never late paying any bills, and she never fussed at me when I bought a boat, travel trailer, or airplane.” Giving great marriage advice he added: “we never argued or even raised our voices at each other, and we were married for 56 years. That’s kind of incredible.” Madeleine later passed away, and Claude remarried Wang Fei.

Claude also built an impressive real estate empire. He learned he could buy a property, rent it out, use that rental income to pay the mortgage, and repeat. 

Claude knew how to work hard and play hard.  He began snow skiing at 63 and skied up till 85! He earned his pilot’s license and loved to fly until age made him stop. 

As a pilot, he often volunteered to fly political figures around the state, and that’s how he met people like Elizabeth Taylor. 

But even though Claude knew lots of politicians and had become successful financially, he always kept his friendly, blue collar touch.

It seems Claude knew everyone, and everyone knew Claude! His son Kenneth said, “When I was young I used to drive some for State Amusement, and one day I was driving too fast. Something I learned from my dad. The policeman pulled me over and when he saw who I was, he said, ‘Son, if I ever see you doing that again, I’ll tell your father.’ I couldn’t get away with anything.”

Claude was an active member of Hollins Road Baptist Church, and he obeyed the command in Romans 12:13 to “practice hospitality.” Over the decades he invited church youth groups, Sunday school classes, and other ministries to come over for pool parties and meals. 

He lived out the George Bernard Shaw quote:  “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Even in his last years, Claude remained physically and mentally spry. My wife and I were shocked in the spring of 2021, when most people were still living in fear of Covid, and we were at the Garden Center at Lowe’s one day where we saw Claude and Wang Fei! They were there looking for tomato plants! How often do you see a 99-year-old at Lowe’s, shopping for plants?

That seemed to be one of the secrets of Claud’s longevity: he was always looking forward, with a sense of expectation and positivity. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar in his 80s liked to say, “I’m still buying green bananas.” At 99, Claude was still buying tomato plants.

After his series of 100th birthday parties in 2022, he was still going into the office “to check on things.”

Just one month before he passed, he threw a birthday party at a restaurant for his daughter-in- law Loretta, and he didn’t want to use his wheelchair but used his walker. 

Partly due to his personality but also being from “The Greatest Generation,” Claude liked to be independent. He lived at his home on Tinker Creek for over 60 years, and stayed there till last week! Finally, he spent 12 days in the hospital, then was able to come home for his last two days, and he passed into eternity from his living room overlooking his beautiful backyard and the creek.

May we all be so blessed.

When he turned 100, he was asked what advice he had for younger people. He said, “watch your health, work hard, and be loved and love others.”

Good advice for us all. Kenneth, Loretta, and Wang Fei, you are in our prayers. Claude, we miss you, but love you and thank you for the amazing example and legacy you left!

***

Claude Smith, at 100 years young
Claude Smith, at 100 years young (April 2022)

Read about Smith turning 100 in 2022 here.

Read Smith’s obituary at 101 here.

–Scott Dreyer

 

 

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