One of my all-time favorite books came to mind when I met a longtime Denham Springs resident just over three years ago.
“The Greatest Generation,” the 1998 New York Times best seller by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, elaborated on the sacrifice and work ethic of those who grew up in the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II.
George Smith, who died last week at age 94, embodied the characteristics of people from the “Greatest Generation” – hard work, loyalty and a fierce devotion to his family and nation.
Smith, who was one of the most highly decorated World War II veterans from Livingston Parish, also knew a thing or two about sacrifice.
He was 21 when he left his wife and newborn child for military duty on Christmas Eve 1942. He spent three years of his life away from them to serve with the U.S. Army Air Corps – a precursor to the Air Force – in the South Pacific during World War II.
His tour of duty took him to the South Atlantic, site of German submarines. It also brought him to Naples, where the Navy escorted them in a trek across the Mediterranean Sea and through the Suez Canal.
Over the course of his stint in the military, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery, the third highest medal awarded by the military. He received the medal for the number of planes he shot down, as well as for stomping a live bomb out a bomb bay so the plane could land.
I first met George in September 2013, six months after I joined the Livingston Parish News staff. I approached him just before the Rotary Club of Livingston Parish joined forced with the Livingston Parish Veterans Association, Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce and Fa-Kouri Construction to do a badly needed renovation on his home of 50 years, where he and his wife reared four children.
He had never received much in return for his services in World II and never asked for it. In the same guise, he did not solicit help on his home, which had fallen into extreme disrepair.
Termites had ravaged panels of the exterior and duct tape held garbage bags over gaping holes in the ceiling to prevent a deluge of rainwater from spilling into his living room.
“It’s a shame veterans have to live like that,” LPVA founder/President Lynn King said at the time.
Smith never asked for help, even though the Vacherie native donated much of his life aiding others. He built sidewalks in his hometown, a project which earned him the rank of Eagle Scout – the first time a St. James Parish received the distinction.
He worked a Holsum Bread delivery route for 30 years after he returned home from World War II, but it did not stop him from helping his community.
His acts of service extended past his days in the military. He helped rebuild the First United Methodist Church sanctuary, which had been destroyed in a fire.
“Every day when I got off work, I went there to do carpentry work,” Smith said in an interview.
I saw George several times over the next year when the volunteers carried out the rebuilding of his home. He was humbled and honored when he watched workers passing in and out of his house during the remodeling project.
It was sometimes hard to tell, however, which meant more: The project, or having all the visitors to his home.
He never felt a sense of entitlement. In the same fashion many from his generation lived, he was far more accustomed to giving than receiving.
The later years were tough. He buried his wife and two of his three children, which left only him and his daughter Patti Smith Piers.
Life dealt George some challenges many could not endure, but he never expressed anger or bitterness during the three-hour stretch we talked for the interview.
Instead, he expressed gratitude. His final words at the close of our interview gave all the proof of what made him and so many from his era “The Greatest Generation.”
“I’ve had a wonderful life, and I helped people because I enjoyed it,” he said. “If I could do all those things all over again, I’d be more than happy to do so – and I wouldn’t want a single nickel for it.”