By Willie Howard
COUNTY POCKET — Robert “Smitty” Smith, an accomplished craftsman and a member of a pioneering wave of surfers who helped popularize the sport in Palm Beach County during the 1960s, died Oct. 31 of heart failure at his apartment in the County Pocket.
He was 71.
Also known as Bob, Mr. Smith was best known for his long affiliation with Nomad Surf Shop, a focal point for area surfers founded in 1968 by Ron Heavyside, who befriended Mr. Smith the day he arrived in Briny Breezes on Oct. 31, 1962.
Mr. Smith helped Heavyside remodel the buildings that became the surf shop and helped maintain them over the years. He was a well-known handyman in Briny Breezes and Gulf Stream, accomplished in carpentry, plumbing and electrical work as well as painting and wallpapering, trades learned from his father.
Heavyside said Mr. Smith was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Briny Breezes with his father, Ben, and stepmother, Mary.
After attending Seacrest High School in Delray Beach, Mr. Smith took the entrance exam for the Air Force and scored so high that he went out and bought a new Chevy Corvair Monza convertible, longtime friend Dana Littlefield said.
But the Air Force rejected Mr. Smith because of poor hearing in his left ear.
“He would have gone places because he was really smart,” Littlefield said.
Mr. Smith was not able to return to high school after his attempt to join the military, Heavyside said. He went to work with his father in the painting and wallpapering business and later spent time in California and Tennessee before returning to the Briny Breezes area.
Littlefield and Heavyside recalled carefree times they enjoyed with Mr. Smith in the 1960s and ’70s, including camping on the beach and boisterous beach parties.
During one night of beach camping, a front came through and pushed waves up the dune, pulling Mr. Smith into the surf in his sleeping bag. He was such a heavy sleeper that he didn’t wake up, but was mad as a hornet when he finally did, Littlefield recalled.
Heavyside’s sons, Ronnie and Ryan, remember Mr. Smith as an avuncular figure who was quick with a joke and sometimes grumpy but always willing to share his knowledge of how to build and repair things.
Gemma Dinanath of Gulfstream Texaco said Mr. Smith installed the lighted sign bearing the Texaco star at the gas station just north of Briny Breezes Town Hall.
“He was a very smart guy,” Dinanath said, but noted that he shied away from doctors and hospitals that could have helped him with health problems in his later years.
Mr. Smith enjoyed lounging in the chairs in front of the Texaco station office, talking with friends, drinking Budweiser and smoking Marlboro 100s, Dinanath said.
Ronnie Heavyside said Mr. Smith helped him mend a wooden fence damaged by Hurricane Irma a few days before he died, even though he was very weak.
“Anything you needed help with you could ask Bob and he would know,” said James Russell, a longtime friend of the Heavyside family.
James Arena, a real estate broker who grew up surfing the waters off Briny Breezes, said Mr. Smith was like a father to many of the area’s young surfers.
“He treated us all like we were his kids,” Arena said. “Everybody knows him in Briny. It’s definitely the loss of an icon around here.”
As a surfer in his younger days, Mr. Smith garnered respect on the waves. He continued to paddle out now and then in recent years, even as his frame withered from the effects of diabetes.
“He was one of the bulls who would go out when it was really rough,” said Tom Warnke, a longtime surfer who attended Seacrest High School with Mr. Smith in the 1960s. “He hardly ever wore a wetsuit, either.”
In his heyday, Mr. Smith was a muscular man about 6 feet tall, 180 pounds, with brown hair, a beard and a penchant for big waves.
“He was a big guy, strong and just totally cool,” Littlefield said.
A tattered newspaper photo hanging on the wall at Nomad Surf Shop shows Mr. Smith and friends in his 1937 Plymouth, windshield folded down, surfboards jutting out over the hood.
“He was a waterman,” Ron Heavyside said. “He liked riding the big waves.”
Members of the Heavyside family organized a group “paddle out” into the ocean in honor of Mr. Smith in late November. His ashes were scattered in the waves.
By Willie Howard