Everyone called him King, but they proclaim him to have been a prince of a fellow.
Robert Kingston Smith was his given name. However: “Nobody would know who you were talking about if you called him Robert,” says Glenda Smith, King’s wife of almost 40 years.
A lifelong Springfieldian, King was 61 when he died May 21 in a St. Louis hospital from complications following surgery there.
His vocation had been working in a local auto parts warehouse for 29 years, but he is most remembered for his avocation — helping others.
“King was all about doing acts of kindness, small acts of thoughtfulness,” recalls Rev. Alf Halvorson, who for a dozen years served in ministerial roles at First & Calvary Presbyterian Church, where King was a lifetime member. “When I think of the word earnest, I think of King. He was caring and other-centered. King didn’t take himself seriously, but he certainly took others seriously.”
Very true, say family and friends. However, he also was pretty serious about sports. And about collecting ephemera related to the “Peanuts” comic strip beagle Snoopy. And about Ford Mustang automobiles.
“He had a ’68 Mustang when we first met,” recalls Glenda. “He had five other ones over the years, all black. He finally got the one he really wanted — a 1970 Mach 1 fastback that was his show car. For just driving around, he had a 2014.”
The Mustangs made him a popular chauffeur when he served on the First & Calvary transportation committee. “All the little old ladies loved him,” says Glenda. “He’d go to the nursing homes and retirement homes and pick them up and bring them to services in his sporty car, and they thought that was the greatest thing ever.”
‘It was just magic’
Glenda, too, thought he was the greatest, although it took her a little while to figure it out.
“I actually was dating one of his friends, and we met through him. They both played softball together that summer. Then during the winter, we went to some basketball games together, all three of us. And after one particular game, we went to McDonald’s, and King and I started talking.
“It was just magic. I don’t know how else to describe it. I knew then that he was the one.”
There was one potential problem: King was four years older than Glenda. He’d already graduated from Parkview High School, Class of 1978. She still was a student at Glendale.
“I remember that night I came home from the McDonald’s, I was just going on and on and on about him with my mom. My dad did not like the idea that King was older. But Mother said to him, ‘You need to back off on this — he really may be the one.’”
King was. He attended all the Glendale volleyball games because Glenda was a player on the team. They both were fans of the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Cardinals. She accepted his explanation of why he also was a fan from afar of Duke University basketball, New England Patriots football and New York Islanders hockey: It was because when the ESPN sports cable network launched in 1979, it couldn’t afford to travel far from its Connecticut headquarters to telecast games.
They both were collectors of fantasy figurines. “When I met him he was a Mickey Mouse fan because he had a lot of family in California,” Glenda recounts. “I, on the other hand, loved Snoopy. But it turned out that he liked Woodstock — ‘that little yellow bird,’ he called him, who was in the comics with Snoopy. So we collected Snoopy and Woodstock things to the point that we had a dedicated bedroom for our collection, and it spilled throughout the rest of the house, too. Obsession is the word, I think.”
The couple did have some differences. For instance, King had been a cat person while Glenda favored dogs. Glenda proposed a wifely compromise: “I gave him the choice of picking out a dog.” King suggested a Siberian Husky, but Glenda wanted a smaller lap dog. “So King said, ‘I kinda like those dogs with the beards.’ So we got a Miniature Schnauzer, and we’ve had seven through the years.”
They also varied, at first, in their outlooks regarding finances.
“He was very frugal. I remember that when he asked me to marry him — this was hilarious — he said, ‘We need to wait until after my CD (certificate of deposit) matures.’ Then he got laid off three weeks before we were to get married. His mother did her best to try to get us to postpone the wedding. But King had saved and saved and saved a lot of money, so we went ahead.
“My family wasn’t at all that way. We were about enjoying life as it came. He quickly fell into that pattern, too.”
‘When he was talking to you, you felt like you definitely were the only other person on Earth’
Through the changes and compromises, King remained steadfastly consistent in his faith and his fellowship. Sister-in-law Cora Scott describes him as “the nicest person I’ve ever known — and I know a lot of people!”
Scott continues: “King was the kind of person who, when he was talking to you, you felt like you definitely were the only other person on Earth. He would look you in the eye and, when he asked how you were doing, it wasn’t just for an answer of ‘Fine’ or whatever — he legitimately cared about how you were doing. He’d sit in that moment with you and was really focused. It was extraordinary.
“He really had a way with people,” Scott says. “And it was with every person, not just the ones he was close to, but with everyone he would meet. He had a genuine curiosity about them, what they were doing, what they were going through.”
Glenda said that trait served him well in his church life as well.
“He started serving as an usher and as a greeter at the door. Through his Sunday school classes, he was nominated to be a deacon, then an elder, and went on from that to be a Stephen Minister.” She explains that a Stephen Minister is a church member who is “trained to become a confidant for people who are having problems of any kind. You are assigned to only one or two people at a time so you can really concentrate on them. It’s a ministry to fulfill whatever need that a troubled person might have, to console them through mutual spirituality.
“Then for several years, he served as a lay minister, contacting people on prayer chains to see if he could serve them in any way, to try to give them a little comfort. Because of his care ministry, he was asked to officiate at three funerals over the years.”
Rev. Halvorson praises King’s church work: “He was one of the pillars of First & Calvary not because he had the biggest business title, not because he made the most money, not because he was the most eloquent speaker before a group of 5,000. No, it was because he was the most connected, the most congruent with others.”
Supportive and caring, King was friend to many
The clergyman, now senior pastor at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, chuckles in telling of canvassing the neighborhood around First & Calvary, which has become surrounded by the expanding Missouri State University campus:
“King and I walked all around the neighborhood inviting people to our fall picnic. Except it was hard to make it all the way around the neighborhood because King was stopping to talk at length to everybody, inviting those who might be lonely because they were away from home for the first time to attend school, or who might just be in need of some company.
“I liked King as a person,” adds Rev. Halvorson, “and as a friend.”
Kent Cruzan felt the same way. He met King as a high school freshman at Parkview when King was a senior.
“His parents and my parents were friends, so he kind of watched over me a little bit to keep me out of trouble because I was younger,” Cruzan recalls. “He was a really good football player at Parkview, and we just hit it off. Then that summer we played for the First & Calvary softball team, and that’s when our friendship really kicked off.
“King was always a guy who could walk into a room and make everyone feel better, just light up the room. He was a very, very caring guy. If you were having a bad day, he wasn’t judgmental — he just made you feel better. That’s the honest truth. He’d sit down and talk with you about anything you wanted to talk about.
“He was a good storyteller, too — stories about things that we did when we were growing up, about us playing softball. He could remember details — ‘Hey, remember back on June 3, 1983, when we were playing…?’ He could remember everything about a game that happened years and years ago. I’m not one of those guys; I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today.
“Back before COVID ruined everything for everybody, King and I and my brother, Chris, would get together at Pizza Inn and reminisce,” adds Cruzan. “And King would have us laughing so hard and loud that they probably wanted us to leave the restaurant.”
Sister-in-law Scott has fond memories of when she coached the Parkview girls’ dance troupe, the Vikettes: “He would come to support us when we performed at games. He was there a lot. He was always supportive of everything that everybody else was doing.”
That included Scott’s daughter, Sophie, when she was playing basketball and volleyball on Central High School teams. “He was always encouraging, no matter what I was doing,” she says of her uncle. “When I went to college and when I decided to go to grad school, I knew that he would always be cheering me on, and that when I came home he’d tell me I was doing great.
“King was the kindest soul I have ever met. People say things like that all the time, but he was the one person I’ve known who really lived that out. Also, I would say that just by being himself he inspired me to be a better person. My New Year’s Resolution for 2021 was radical kindness toward everyone. In my journal entry about that, I wrote that a type of ‘King kindness’ was the best thing that I could aspire to.”
Glenda said that her husband’s kindness and service to others is coming full circle as word spreads about a celebration of his life that is planned at 11 a.m. Friday, June 3, at Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home. In accordance with King’s wishes, “casual and comfortable” is the dress code for the occasion because “King wanted a party.”
“There’s been a lot of response to this,” Glenda says. “Several people want to speak about him and what he meant in their lives. I’m really a little nervous about how many people might show up.
“He would be very embarrassed by all the attention. He just never thought of himself as a special person. He was very humble.”
Well, except for one occasion, she says with a gentle laugh:
“The only time that I remember that he showed any arrogance at all was when Sophie’s boyfriend at the time asked him: ‘Weren’t you worried about Glenda at first, her being in high school with other guys when you weren’t there?’ And King told him: ‘No, because she chased me!’
“Which was very true. And I’m very glad I did.”