PITTSFIELD — Charles L. Smith, who was elected to four consecutive terms as mayor during the 1980s, died Sunday at Berkshire Medical Center. He was 82.
"This is a great loss," said former Mayor Gerald S. Doyle, who was a young councilor during Smith's tenure in the corner office and a family friend for many years. "He was a great guy, a nice guy who cared about people," Doyle said.
Doyle described Smith as "a mentor to me," and "just a guiding light."
After leaving office in 1987, Smith often attended public events — both political and civic — and kept up on politics, locally and nationally, said family members and friends. But as his health declined in recent months, he reluctantly missed the inauguration of Mayor Linda M. Tyer in January.
His son, Charles L. Smith Jr., said he was hospitalized with circulatory problems and recovered for a time but had trouble getting around. He also had suffered a heart attack in 1985 while serving as mayor.
Despite serving in the City Council for six years and eight years as mayor, Smith retained the respect of political friends and foes alike. The mayor he defeated in the 1979 election, Paul E. Brindle III, remained a friend over the years.
"Even though we were opponents in the election, we were still very good friends," Brindle said Monday. "I was very sad to hear the news."
He added, "That was the nice part about years ago: You could have political opponents, but after all was said and done, and you left City Hall, you remained good friends."
Brindle recalled later serving as the speaker during an anniversary party for Smith and his wife, the former Patricia Eastland.
Outside the political realm, the Smiths were known for their work with foster children. Charles Smith Jr. said that, in addition to raising their own six children, they were foster parents to more than 100 children over about a 20-year period.
"To this day, they get a lot of calls and letters" from former foster children now grown, he said, and he knows of several who plan to return to Pittsfield for the funeral service.
An employee at BMC during the former mayor's recent hospitalization told the family that her parent had been one of those foster children years ago, Smith said.
Charles L. Smith was born in 1933, shortly after his father, Francis L. Smith, was killed in a motor vehicle accident. He later dropped out of high school, he told The Eagle during a 1987 interview, but earned his equivalency diploma when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served in Japan during the Korean War era.
It was there that Smith and fellow Marines became involved with supporting an orphanage at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, which still is supported by Marines deployed at the military base nearby, his son said.
During a subsequent trip to Japan years later, the Smiths decided to begin proceedings to adopt one of the orphans, who became their seventh child a few years later. The New York Times highlighted the adoption and the Smiths work with foster children in a 1987 feature article.
After leaving the service, Smith worked in construction and as maintenance director at the Pittsfield Housing Authority. He ran for the state Legislature and three other offices before winning a term as Ward 7 councilor and then as councilor at large, prior to four terms as mayor.
The 1979 campaign against Brindle was primarily focused on a Pyramid Cos.' plan to create a mall in downtown Pittsfield, which Smith came to oppose and which Brindle supported. The firm eventually constructed the mall in Lanesborough.
In an Eagle interview upon leaving office, Smith said steps forward for the city included the creation of the Downing Industrial Park and other industrial sites, the refuse-to-energy plant on Hubbard Avenue, and the rehabilitation of the Bank of Boston building and location of the Kay-Bee Toys headquarters building around what had been the proposed mall site in the downtown.
He said his greatest achievement was a major upgrade of the city water system, including a filtration system designed by Krofta Engineering of Lenox. After leaving office, Smith worked for Krofta and its Lenox Institute of Water Technology, retiring in 1999.
"He was a great guy, just a wonderful citizen, and I'll miss him," former Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said Monday. "He was so kind to me and would call me and offer advice, or just to chat. He really was a larger-than-life figure in the city of Pittsfield."
"He really was a people's mayor," his son said. "You talk about an open door policy: He had an open door to the man on the street. He answered the phone, he listened. He liked people and helping them is what he wanted to do."
Over the years, his father became friends with people from all walks of life, Smith said. He also traveled widely, including to more than 30 countries, and developed strong interests in municipal water systems and the environment and read extensively on local and national political developments.
Smith said his father was keenly interested in the current presidential campaign and was following it closely.
"I extend my sincere condolences to Mayor Smith's family during this very sad time," Mayor Tyer said Monday. "Mayor Smith dedicated himself to public service and is to be recognized for the commitment he made to Pittsfield. He represents a long legacy of mayors who have made contributions to the storied history of our city."
"I think he was a self-made man," Doyle said. "And he did everything right. He didn't play games."
Reflecting on those of Smith's tenure as mayor who've passed away in recent years, Doyle said, "It is getting toward the end of an era. A lot of good people are gone."