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C. Fraser Smith, whose nearly six-decade career in journalism spanned newspapers, radio and books, dies

Fraser Smith, former longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and The Daily Record, and former news director of WYPR.
Fraser Smith, former longtime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and The Daily Record, and former news director of WYPR.

C. Fraser Smith, whose nearly six-decade career in journalism spanned newspapers, radio and books, died April 25 at a daughter’s home in Severna Park of complications from a stroke. The Northeast Baltimore resident was 83.

“Fraser Smith was the epitome of what a journalist should be: intellectually curious, observant, thoughtful, skeptical, deeply respectful of his profession and an elegant writer,” said Tom Linthicum, a retired editor who worked with Mr. Smith for more than 30 years at The Baltimore Sun and The Daily Record.

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“He loved his calling with an unmatched passion and pursued it with a singular zeal and enthusiasm, always pursuing the next story, the next column or the next book,” Mr. Linthicum said.

Marc Steiner, a Baltimore radio personality, and Mr. Smith were also friends and colleagues for 30 years.

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“He was an old-school journalist not interested in befriending the powerful or, as he always said, ‘Never put a politician on a pedestal.’ And he didn’t and suffered the wrath of men like [the late former Maryland Gov.] William Donald Schaefer,” Mr. Steiner wrote in an email. “A gifted writer, a decent human being, a gentleman, with a quick and deep sense of humor. When I started the news department at WYPR, he was the man I tapped to lead it, and lead it he did. He built the YPR news department into one of the best in the country.”

He added: “Whatever comes next, he will be fighting for the truth in that realm too.”

“His work was imbued with keen insight and authority,” Tom Hall, a WYPR colleague, said Tuesday in an on-air tribute. “He was a gentleman, a model of gentility. He was tough and quick to be curmudgeonly when the moment called for a curmudgeon. He delighted in the joy of telling the stories of the people who were doing good, and he was ferociously dedicated to holding to account those who were doing bad. He loved being in City Hall and in symphony hall, in the State House and in our house, as a trusted guide through the news we needed to know.”

“A lot of us are hard-bitten reporters, but the thing that strikes me about Fraser was that he was able to be a tough investigative reporter and a wonderful person at the same time,” said Tim Phelps, a former Sun reporter and editor and longtime friend. “Everyone loved him, even the people he was writing about.”

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Colin Fraser Smith — he never used his first name — was the son of Colin Smith, a district manager for the Commercial Creme Corp., and his wife, the former Mary Paddon, a registered nurse. He was born in Rochester, New York, and later lived in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and Claymont, Delaware, where he graduated in 1956 from Claymont High School.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1960 from the University of North Carolina and, after leaving college, served for the next three years in the Air Force as a supply and logistics officer based in Amarillo, Texas, Boston and Japan, and attained the rank of lieutenant.

With his square jaw, rugged good looks, head of wavy hair and Southern charm, Mr. Smith perhaps could have gone into pictures but chose newspapering instead.

“I wanted to write. Great bits of fiction were not flowing from my brain; so I thought I could write for newspapers. I thought that might be exciting and even useful. I would see some of life. I would improve my writing skills,” Mr. Smith wrote in his last book, “The Daily Miracle: A Memoir of Newspapering,” published in 2019.

After being rebuffed by The New York Times because he had no journalism experience, Mr. Smith landed a job across the Hudson River at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City.

After two years of general assignment reporting, Mr. Smith joined the staff of the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1965 as a reporter.

He lived for a year with his then-wife, Martha Smith, and daughter, Jennifer, in the Hartford Park public housing development, part of his reporting for an award-winning 1969 series on public housing.

In 1970, he did a year of graduate study at Yale University on an American Political Science Association fellowship.

Mr. Smith left the Providence Journal in 1977 and joined the staff of The Sun, where he would rise to become the paper’s chief political reporter.

One of his early beats was City Hall during Schaefer’s mayoral administration, which led to a series of landmark articles on the city’s “Shadow Government,” describing the mayor’s use of quasi-public corporations to fast-track major development projects in the city, free of public scrutiny or the usual checks and balances.

Mr. Smith then became a regular in Annapolis, where he covered the State House. He also covered Maryland’s delegation to Congress and was a staff writer for Perspective, the paper’s Sunday section devoted to news analysis.

“When he put a story together, you could take it to the bank,” said Michael Olesker, a former Sun columnist and longtime friend. “He was a solid, good-hearted guy, and a terrific reporter.”

He ended his career at The Sun in 2003 as an editorial writer and joined the staff of WYPR, where he was news director and hosted “Inside Maryland Politics.” He retired in 2017.

“In the State House, Fraser knew how everything worked, who pulled whose strings, where to go to find out what was really going on behind the scenes,” Joel McCord, a former Sun reporter who is currently news director at WYPR, wrote in the station’s website. “He had probably forgotten more about Maryland politics than the rest of us will ever learn.”

Mr. Smith was also a columnist for The Daily Record until retiring in 2017.

Mr. Smith was the author of four books: “Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big-Time College Basketball”; “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography”; “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland”; and “The Daily Miracle: A Memoir of Newspaper Writing.”

Robert J. Brugger, a former Johns Hopkins University Press editor with whom Mr. Smith worked, said when he wrote his biography of Mayor Schaefer, “the ripest of subjects met the ideal storyteller.”

“Fraser went on to explore a topic that revealed his considerable moral depth and abundant sympathy, the halting of civil rights and racial justice in post-World War II Maryland.”

He also wrote articles for Sports Illustrated and Regardie’s.

In his final column for The Daily Record, “Ring the bells while we can,” (the title of a Leonard Cohen song), Mr. Smith reflected on his years in journalism.

“One of my old newspapers, The Baltimore Sun, had a splendid motto: Light for All. We were proud of it, determined to make it so,” he wrote. “Mildly cynical jokes became part of the reporter and editor mantra. We were there to shine the light; that responsibility made up for the meager pay. To be one of the small batteries in the spotlight of democracy was an honor.”

He concluded: “I’ve been lucky and privileged to work for good, principled newspapers like the Daily Record, The Sun, the Providence Journal and the Jersey Journal. I want to thank readers — those who nodded their heads at my wisdom and those who (somehow) disagreed with me and wrote to say so. An honest, thoughtful exchange is what it’s all about.”

Mr. Smith enjoyed the opera and was a patron of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He loved traveling, especially to Italy and to visit his grandchildren.

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He also enjoyed golfing on city golf courses with several old newspaper cronies, including Suzanne Wooton who, while covering the General Assembly in the 1980s for The Evening Sun, got to know Mr. Smith.

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“It just became one of those friendships that never died,” said Ms. Wooton, who later became The Sun’s state editor and his boss. “I had been given a set of clubs wanted to learn how to play golf, and one day we played hooky from work and went to a course in Howard County. He taught me how to play golf. He was a scratch golfer and had the most beautiful swing. He was known for that and I guess he learned it from growing up in Pinehurst.”

“Truly we mourn his loss,” Mr. Brugger said “He was a joy to be with and a fine human being. He exemplified the compassion and integrity we need now more than ever.”

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

Mr. Smith is survived by his partner of 15 years, Carole Hamlin; a son, Jacob Smith of Mandeville, Louisiana; four daughters, Jennifer Thorpe of Severna Park, Alexandra Avedisian of Norton, Massachusetts, and Anna C. Smith and Emily C. Smith, both of New York City; and seven grandchildren. Marriages to Martha H. Smith and Eileen Canzian ended in divorce.

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