In the early 1920s, my great-uncle, Clarence Smith, had a construction job at the Ironton iron mill plant, located on the southern border of Provo, Utah. One day, as he was waiting for an open elevator to come down, the toes on his right foot were smashed because his foot was in the way of the elevator’s downward movement. He was immediately taken to the Provo Hospital for recovery. Unfortunately, Clarence developed gangrene and part of his foot was amputated. He became despondent after the surgery and said he wished he had died instead. Unfortunately, things would only get more difficult. The gangrene hadn’t been adequately contained and his right leg was also amputated just below the knee. This single event would have a profound impact on the rest of his life.
Clarence’s new challenge brought new trials. Because he couldn’t adequately provide for his family, they needed government welfare. This was greatly distressing to him. Sometimes, when his anxiety would become almost unbearable, Orpha (his wife) would tell him they needed to go to the mountains to get more wood for the winter fires. Clarence needed this as it gave him the opportunity to swing his axe and get his mind off his troubles.
Finances were very difficult during this time. Decades later, Clarence’s youngest son, Lynn, shared that he had the municipal records indicating that Clarence did not have the money to pay his property taxes. This occurred at least six different years. Each of these years, the deadline for payment would always be missed. It would be on the day of or the day before the city was ready to repossess the house that Clarence would show up with the required funds.
Eventually, Clarence received an artificial leg that helped him learn to walk again. But life on the leg was not without its difficulties. On the top sides of the artificial leg (knee level) were two little round hinges. And although Clarence would wear a heavy wool stock over the stump of his leg to protect his skin from the hinges, the hinges would sometimes come loose and pierce through the sock into his skin. If Clarence was out working for his employer, he would never stop to tighten the hinges for fear of being seen as weak and possibly replaced by someone else (in those days, people with disabilities were highly discriminated against—much more so than they are today). He returned home with his leg bitten and bloody. He then plastered his leg with a grease-like ointment, tightened the hinges, and returned to work the next day.
In the first years following the accident, finding suitable employment had been very difficult. Eventually, Clarence found a job with the Work Project Administration (WPA), which was a government works project during the Depression. He could earn twenty-five cents a day more working on WPA projects than he could get from welfare, so he took the job.
The WPA project Clarence was assigned to was located up Provo Canyon installing a water duct. One day Clarence was on the side of a hill working when his boss told him to come down. Once he arrived he was told to get into the pickup truck that was going down to Provo. Clarence assumed they were going to get more supplies. When they got back to Provo, the boss told him, “We have enough able-bodied men to do the work, we don’t need you anymore.” Clarence was devastated. He had actually been fired from a government project that was designed to help families in need. A similar scenario happened years later when he found a job at the newly constructed Geneva Steel mill. Clarence was an overhead crane operator but was replaced when veterans began returning from WWII. The reason: they were able-bodied men and he wasn’t.
Clarence took matters into his own hands. He entered the Iron Workers Union and would remain in this organization for the rest of his life. His new work took him to nearby counties and states where he laid steel for many bridges, roads, and buildings.
Clarence’s youngest son, Lynn, had the opportunity to work with his father on some of these projects. Lynn remembered a story when he and his father were working out in Wyoming on a project by the Little America Hotel. A 130-foot elevator shaft had been built to help with the proper pouring of cement into the structures that Clarence and Lynn were building. One day, Lynn’s boss approached him and asked him to climb up the elevator shaft to retrieve a pulley and bring it down. Lynn started climbing the shaft, but when he was almost half-way up, he felt one of his hands lock on the rod. Lynn had a fear of heights. He then heard a voice say, “Lynn, come on down, I’ll go get it.” He recognized his father’s voice. Knowing his father’s physical condition gave Lynn the courage to keep climbing. He reached the top, retrieved the pulley, and came down.
Lynn closely observed his father on their work trips. He saw that his father always gave his best efforts to his employer. Lynn said his father always worked like a man-and-a half. Lynn thought his father must have always been hearing the words “Smitty, we can use an able-bodied man now” echo in his mind.
Joy in Hardship
Clarence found ways to laugh. His good humor in life was a great coping mechanism for his trials.
Clarence was out on his porch one day enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren were playing the game “cowboys,” running around lassoing the objects surrounding them. One of the boys lassoed Clarence’s artificial leg that was crossed over the good one. Clarence got a little gleamer in his eye. He got up and went inside the kitchen and loosed the screws to his artificial leg. He then slowly walked out and sat down in the chair and resumed the same stance that he had before. Predictably, the boys came around and lassoed Clarence’s artificial leg. But this time Clarence gave a little kick to his leg and it went flying off. Utter silence followed. Clarence’s granddaughter, Michelle, asked with tears in her eyes, “My leg won’t come off, will it?” Laughter erupted. Everyone present would always remember the day when Clarence’s leg had been “pulled off” by a lasso.
In his final years when Clarence was fighting cancer and didn’t feel like moving around much, Lynn made a piñata for him. At first, Clarence wasn’t sure if he wanted to participate, but he finally agreed to and started pulling the piñata’s string as his grandchildren swung the stick. Lynn observed that he never saw his father laughing and enjoying himself so much as when he pulled the piñata’s rope up and down.
From his early manhood years, Clarence had been dealt a harder hand. He lost a part of his body that could have made his life so much easier and convenient in many ways. But instead of becoming a victim, he became an inspiration. Perhaps Clarence’s accident allowed him to impact the lives of people around him in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Clarence learned what it really meant to tap into one’s potential. His fighting spirit will always be remembered by those who knew him best. His refusal to give in will be one of his greatest accomplishments. He left a legacy worth remembering.1