Bernard “Bernie” Smith rises hours before most and heads for his spare bedroom-turned-studio seeking solace. Although he walks a short distance, he passes scores of paintings, each with its place on his wall.
The paintings, which he’ll probably sell for charity, feature a range of subjects and most are very colorful.
Most days, Smith is working on several paintings in various stages of completion. If he’s chosen to use blue and green on a particular day, he’ll only work on pieces that could include a bit of blue or green or both.
He’s a little unorthodox in his methods as well.
“When I paint, I turn my easel 90 degrees,” says Smith, a 75-year-old disabled veteran. “Without a rotator cuff, you can only do so much.”
Got to ‘stay busy’
While Smith has loved to paint since he was a child, enjoyment is not his sole reason for painting.
“I’m doing this because I have to. You have got to stay busy. You can’t dwell on the past. I stay busy, that’s my outlet.”
Day to day, his life is significantly impacted by time spent in the Air Force.
Smith joined the Air Force for a chance to get away and see the things published in National Geographic magazines that arrived in the mailbox of his prosperous aunt and uncle.
He sneaked away from his Cincinnati home and enlisted one morning with the aid of a friend who had a car. By the time his family woke up, he was nowhere to be seen.
“I was gone four days before they knew where I was,” Smith says, convinced his parents were not upset. “It was one less mouth to feed.”
Air Force career
Smith’s Air Force career stretched from 1958 to 1981. It included service in Vietnam, Thailand, Libya and 21 other countries. Early in the Vietnam War, he spent 13 months on duty in a mortuary.
Without going into detail, he says the experience had a profound effect on him.
“We got from 12 to 14 a day. When you go through all that stuff, you get flashbacks.”
He jokes that the Veterans Administration can’t figure out what ails him because they “are still working with the abacus.”
In addition to art, Smith keeps his mind off his problems by spending time helping service personnel and retirees.
In recent years, one of his many activities has been to visit military installations where soldiers are leaving for Afghanistan or Iraq.
He flies free as a benefit of his retirement, when space is available, on military transport planes.
This year, he’s made 12 trips working with the USO in Austria, the Azores, England, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Greece and Spain.
He gives postcards bearing images of his paintings to soldiers. Soldiers can write notes on them to loved ones and the USO applies stamps and mails them.
Gifts from the heart
Smith says he gives away about 14,000 cards a year. A company he works with prints the cards for free. Smith sells some of his original paintings to raise money for shipping those he cannot carry.
“They are completely in combat gear,” Smith says. “We’ve fed them bratwurst, hot dogs, pizza, sandwiches and soup.”
Family members have told him that one of his cards was the last thing they received from their loved one killed in the war.
“I do it just to keep the families together. I used to send my mom and my aunt postcards from around the world. Do you know when they died they had every one of those post cards? They were tied with a ribbon around them.”
Smith says he also does a lot of charity clothing drives. He works with the Elks Club and Veterans Administration to provide clothing to military retirees.
“They are brand-new clothes donated by stores, things they cannot put back on the shelf.
“We have a number of people in management in different stores. I have been working with them for about 12 years.”
Smith’s work also brings him into contact with many other charitable organizations, including the Red Cross.
Having grown up working several part-time jobs as a child, Smith is no stranger to hard work, he says.
He worked at supermarkets, selling Christmas cards, Christmas trees, whatever he could do to make money.
“There were seven kids. I was paying room and board when I was 12.
“We were so poor, we couldn’t pay attention,” he says, finding the humor in their situation.
His interest in art began to flourish at age 9 when he won a contest held by the local newspaper. He colored a picture advertising the Ice Capades.
“I begged mama for a nickel to buy a stamp to send it in. I’d doodle and my mind would wander and the nuns would come by with the ruler.”
A friend’s view
Friend Rae Chapman thinks the doodling paid off.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing what he does to give back to not only his country but the local community as well,” says Chapman. “I know he does this to keep his mind off all the disasters that have happened in his life.
“I think he comes across sometimes as stern, but underneath all of this he is such a sensitive person and very caring.
The look in his eyes shows he is very happy when someone is pleased with his work, she says.
“I know he paints for therapy and for the enjoyment of creating something, but to me, they are masterpieces.”
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.
Bernie Smith, a retired Air Force veteran, donates much of his work to local hospitals and overseas to benefit members of the armed forces, past and present.×
Smith flips through various postcards he donates to soldiers. The images are based on his paintings.×
Packs of gum sit ready to be shipped overseas and donated to soldiers and their families.×
Smith, collects boxes of clothing and supplies to send overseas to soldiers and their families.×