Our state lost one of the best role models of what it means to be a public servant with the passing of Ralph N. Smith.
Smith, who called Union home for much of his life, died Sunday. He was 88 years old.
Those who knew or worked with him understood what a precious gift he was to his community, county and state.
As a leader, as an advocate, as a thinker or as an elected official or serving one, he was an exemplary example of what one individual could do in service to others.
He was a rare commodity – an uncommonly decent and caring human being who chose public service as his life’s mission and who embodied collegiality and cooperation to the end.
His career in local and state government spanned nearly 50 years. Half of that time was spent in Franklin County government where he served with distinction in a number of offices during a time when the county experienced significant growth.
Smith was instrumental in bringing planning and zoning to the county in the adoption of other codes and regulations for building, subdivisions and mobile home parks. It wasn’t sexy work, but it was critical to ensuring orderly growth to a county on the move.
He was the right man at the right time at the helm of county government. He knew how to get things done and had a knack for bringing people together.
His career took him to Jefferson City where he made a mark working for the Missouri Farm Bureau and serving as chairman on the State Tax Commission.
It wasn’t surprising his talents drew the attention of state leaders. He would later serve as a senior staffer for Govs. Christopher “Kit” Bond and John Ashcroft.
Both credited him with playing an integral role in their administrations and in moving the state forward. They relied on his counsel on important issues and especially valued his ability to build bridges with Democrats, who controlled the Legislature at the time.
Smith had a unique gift of getting along with people. He was a Republican, but had just as many friends who were Democrats. He knew how to work a room and make everyone feel important. It wasn’t an act, it’s who he was.
People respected him and wanted to be around him. He was viewed as an honest broker and someone who could be trusted. To this day, he is revered for his grace and wisdom in Jefferson City.
We knew him as a family man who was devoted to his wife Lorraine and his children, Kim and Amy, and his grandchildren. We knew him as someone who never failed to do the right thing in the right way.
Former Gov. Ashcroft, who would later serve as U.S. senator and attorney general, said it best in paying tribute to his friend: “We are all better because he’s the guy he was.”
People like Ralph Smith don’t come around too often. If they did, politics and the world would be a much better place.