Alvin Louis Smith: activist, pillar and family man
By GRACE WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
The death of Alvin Louis Smith III, dedicated husband and father, a pillar of the community, mentor and activist, leaves behind large shoes that will ultimately prove difficult to fill. Whether it was a discussion about politics over wine, or cigars and a scotch, or a game of golf, Smith was eager to share his passions with those whose lives he touched.
Approximately 400 officials, community members, activists, family and friends gathered on Friday, Jan. 11, to memorialize the Montclair native.
Smith, 57, died of cancer Jan. 9.
He was born into a vastly different Montclair compared to the one of today. His family’s dedication to bettering the community at large and the lives of so many are indelibly linked to the rich history and footprints he leaves behind.
Smith grew up in Montclair’s south end. His father, also active in the community, was a pioneer in desegregating the public school system and as such, Smith attended desegregated schools in the early years.
Childhood friend Ken Schapiro recalls meeting Smith in junior high school at what is now Buzz Aldrin Middle School. The two became fast friends themselves, sharing a love of Star Trek, comic books and baseball. Ever the connectors, their love of the sport brought children together from Smith’s neighborhood in the south end and Schapiro’s neighborhood near Edgemont School, where they would split into teams and engage in pick up baseball games.
Shapiro remembers sparring a never-ending debate over the New York Mets vs. New York Yankees. They were on opposite ends of the table from childhood onward, and neither friend caved, but they were able to put their differences aside where it counted most: on the field. In high school, the pair coached little league for one year, something most high schoolers didn’t do, but, “Al had connections, so we got to do it. We did pretty well that year. He was a master strategist, even then.”
Shapiro said he will always remember Smith’s rules of politics, which he got from his father, specifically, “Learn to count,” he said.
“People just want to go out and spout ideas, he’d be like: learn to count if you’re trying to get [something] passed, how many votes you need,” he said. “It is the utter simplicity and brilliance of politics.”
Smith leaves behind his wife, Dolores, and two children, Taylor and Tara. During his more than two decades as a New Jersey State Trooper, Smith put his words into action through his involvement in a discrimination lawsuit against the organization. The case would ultimately change the face of law enforcement in New Jersey.
Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill remembers Smith’s sensitivity to discrimination and how it melded with his protective nature toward children, especially his. “A lot of what he did and said was: ‘my child is not going to suffer if anybody shows anything discriminatory, I will be on top of it. People have got to know they can not treat my child in an unfair way,’ and he meant that,” said Gill.
James Harris, who was the leader of the local NAACP chapter and assisted Smith with the lawsuit, said the suit identified clear patterns of racial discrimination in the hiring and treatment of African American State Police officers. Of all the issues, the biggest was the promotion process, which allowed the superintendent to promote or demote officers at his discretion.
Smith’s willingness to sacrifice by putting himself on the line has stuck with Harris over time. “There is a blue wall in the whole policing society, and anybody who stays in the bounds is generally ok,” said Harris. “But once you challenge that wall, it closes in, and folks isolate you.”
Smith was also active in local politics and community improvement projects. Gill counted Smith as “one of my best friends.
“I’m 44, and he was 57. He was a part of all the major milestones in my life,” he said. “He was supportive of my similar passions in politics. He really, as a friend, supported you and your dreams and ambitions.”
To Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, Smith’s involvement in the community was a given because of his upbringing. “His parents and family had this tradition of being involved in the community,” he said. “Whether they talked about it around the dinner table or it was in his DNA, it became apparent that he had special leadership qualities.”
Smith was also a citizen of the world, with a passion for history. Most recently, he was working on a doctorate thesis about the history and significance of rap music.
“He was a big bear of a guy who had this twinkle in his eye and just loved life,” said family friend Cary Chevat. “He is gone too soon.”
Jackson said Smith’s involvement with the Montclair Child Development Center was an opportunity for him to give back in an impactful way. His belief in the program, which provides children from lower-income families with Pre-K programming through Head Start, will continue after his death: the family requested donations be made to the center in his name in lieu of flowers.
“He saw that some of these kids weren’t able to get some of the advantages he provided for his girls. He saw it as important to provide for others to be able to do that,” Jackson said.