November 16, 2012
When the news of Wendell Smothers' death got around this week, many very sad people in the Tribune newsroom described him with the word "fixture."
From behind a big reception desk in the fourth-floor lobby, for more years than most of us can remember, Wendell monitored the comings and goings not only of employees but of the celebrities and dignitaries who came through. Even if you were Barack Obama or Bono, you had to pass by Wendell's desk.
Wendell was a quiet guy, verging on gruff, though making him chuckle wasn't hard, and he often wore a watchful little smile, as if he knew things, which he did.
What time did you go to lunch? Come back? With whom? A little shopping, hmm? He knew.
From the fertile gossip ground outside the elevator doors, Wendell observed a lot, and no doubt heard a lot, despite the ear buds he often wore, listening to music too low for anyone to be sure what it was. He kept our secrets, and his own.
He also kept community candy, which always made me think he was more sentimental than he let on.
"When I first interviewed here," says Tribune writer Stacy St. Clair, "I waited in that little seating area behind his desk for someone to come claim me. In a Hollywood movie, he would have offered me sage advice about landing the job and impressing the editors here. In reality, he offered me a copy of the day's paper and a miniature Hershey's bar from the candy jar he kept on his desk."
At some point, Wendell stopped filling his candy dish. When Tribune writer Dahleen Glanton asked him about it, he said, "It cost too much."
That's when she realized he'd been feeding us sweets out of his wallet.
In March, in a round of layoffs, Wendell left the Tribune. The distress in the newsroom was as palpable as a pinched nerve.
Few of us, it's true, knew him well, beyond a few facts: He had a son, who had moved away. He loved sports. He worked a second job, as a sales associate at a nearby Gap.
An African-American who started life in public housing, he guarded his thoughts, perhaps from a sense that he was different from most people he greeted morning after morning.
"He did say that sometimes people didn't talk to him because of his station in life," said my colleague Marcia Lythcott, who routinely brought him meals to take home in Tupperware, telling him, honestly, that she'd cooked too much.
Nevertheless, Wendell had a significant relationship with many people here. Recently, he'd continued to make weekly NFL football picks with some of the editors and reporters. He was good at it.
Over the summer, I ran into him on Michigan Avenue. Reflexively, I stopped and hugged him, hard. In that moment, it hit me, corny as it sounds, that he was family.
He was disturbingly gaunt that day, but it was still shocking to learn that on Monday, at 52, he was found dead in his home. The official cause was heart disease.
Every office has its fixtures, the people who seem like they've always been there and always will be, whose value, as a result, is fully appreciated only when they're gone. That was Wendell Smothers.
I hope he knew that for a long time after he left, his blue cardigan hung on his abandoned chair, and that his desk was still called Wendell's desk.
On Thursday, some of his old colleagues put fresh flowers on the desk, and the candy dish, once again, was full.
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