When the end came in the predawn quiet of Wednesday morning, it was as if the entire world had gathered at Belleville General Hospital to say goodbye.
Harry Leslie Smith had that kind of far-reaching impact.
Smith didn’t just have followers and admirers, he touched people viscerally with his passion for social justice, his rants against austerity and his fervent belief that the world could be, and should be, a better place. But people had to take the hard-fought lessons from his generation and make certain — he would’ve said damn certain — they weren’t repeated.
As a relentless crusader for the impoverished, Smith ramped up his wrath as he hit his 90s, calling himself “the world’s oldest rebel.” With his books, tweets, podcasts, speeches and newspaper columns, he let generations of devotees into his life; so it was only fitting that they’d want to be there as he faded towards death and made his final stand at 95.
With his son and constant companion, John, taking over his Twitter account and providing poignant updates from his father’s bedside as he fought pneumonia, many of his 258,000 followers flooded the account with an outpouring of love and support.
“It was comforting,” John said by phone Wednesday. “He was the last voice of his generation that had grit, determination and compassion. When he died, to me it felt like when one would see a unique, rare beautiful species go extinct.”
Smith split his time between Belleville, Ont., and his native England, and when John let it be known that his father was gone, there were tributes from political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “Throughout his life, Harry Leslie Smith fought and worked to make the world a better place for everyone … his legacy will be profound.”
This came from Jeremy Corbyn, British Labour party leader: “We will all miss Harry Leslie Smith — he was one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on. A World War Two veteran who dedicated his life to fighting for our National Health Service, a peaceful world and for countries to meet their moral responsibility by welcoming refugees.”
Smith, the son of an English coal miner, grew up in the slums of Yorkshire amid degrading poverty that had him pawing through garbage looking for scraps to eat.
“It was a brutal life,” he recalled in an interview with the Star last year.
Without the benefit of national health care, he watched as one of his two older sisters wasted away with spinal tuberculosis and “like rubbish they hauled away” was taken to a workhouse infirmary to await death. At 10, her body was tossed into an unmarked pauper’s pit.
With his dad out of work, and eventually kicked out by his mother, the family moved through a series of crowded lodging facilities, often living with damaged war vets and the mentally ill. It was not uncommon for young Harry, his own hunger a constant numbing force, to see people wailing in pain, hoping for death, because they couldn’t afford medical help.
Smith lived through the Depression and the Second World War, and it was that rare perspective on Twitter that helped make him a social media sensation as he targeted everything from Donald Trump’s policies and creeping fascism to runaway corporate greed and eroding health benefits.
Smith joined the Royal Air Force at 18 in 1941 and remained in Germany with the post-war occupational forces. In Hamburg, he met his future wife, Friede, a German native. The couple eventually settled in working-class Halifax, England, in what Smith called a “a beans-on-toast life.” Smith worked as a carpet weaver but they longed for something more. That better life came when the couple — thanks to a small, unexpected inheritance — was able to cross the ocean and eventually settle in Scarborough. Smith worked in the carpet sales business and raised three sons.
It was a happy life. While Smith was politicized by the hardships of his youth it was heartbreak in retirement that pushed him to take his message to the world. First he lost his wife of 52 years to cancer in 1999. That, Harry said, took away his softness. Then when his middle son, Peter, already battling schizophrenia, was killed by lung disease in 2009, he began writing his memoirs.
Three self-published books led to a column in the Guardian newspaper. That essay caught the eye of a book agent, which led to a fourth book, Harry’s Last Stand, that was both autobiographical and an impassioned plea for a better world and the preservation of the welfare state.
The book proved popular and, suddenly at 91, Smith was not only a celebrity of sorts but he was a catalyst for political reform from a decidedly left-wing perspective. One that had an audience spanning generations.
After he’d speak at a university, he’d often get the rock-star treatment with students lingering afterwards to have a book signed or simply just to share a few words of encouragement.
“I think his legacy will be that you don’t have to be special or important to change the world,” said John said Wednesday. “That age should not matter and that you can be a living example to others about how best to approach politics and social change.”
John will continue his father’s work, including the completion of a planned book on the refugee crisis. He hoped his dad’s warnings might help ensure that Smith’s past doesn’t become our future.
Smith, while still producing at a feverish pace, was keenly aware he was racing against time when he spoke to the Star last year.
“I would like to feel, when I go, that my life meant something,” he said. “That I’ve seen changes happening; that ordinary people begin to realize that they mean something.”
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Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey