David Zurawik

A community reaches out to show its affection for Ron Smith

WBAL radio show host Ron Smith doesn't hesitate when asked if anything has changed since he announced he has Stage Four pancreatic cancer and will no longer undergo chemotherapy.

"I'm facing death in a very short time," says Smith, 69. "So what becomes supreme in importance is love, friendships, relationships. It's so clear: My family has grown closer together — one to the other. It's been a valuable experience — one I'd rather not have immediately gone to — but you've got to die sometime."

Surprisingly, one of things he lists under "inessential stuff" that has been "swept away" by cancer is politics.

"Politics doesn't interest me at all anymore," says the man who has been talking conservative politics passionately for 26 years on Baltimore's 50,000-watt news-talk station.

"Who cares?" he says. "I was talking to [Sen.] Ben Cardin. He was one of the first to call me. And we expressed our mutual liking for one another, and then he said something about 'despite our political differences.' And I said, 'Ben, at times like this, politics doesn't amount to anything.' And he agreed: It just doesn't."

And yet, one of the most rewarding and sustaining aspects of the response to Smith's end-of-life on-air announcement is the way men and women who might be considered political opponents have reached out to him in recent days, he said.

"Now, I've spent years [battling with] liberal Democrats, right?" Smith says, seated in the living room of his just-across-the-border Pennsylvania home with his wife, June, and son, Ward, nearby in case he needs anything. "I mean, Ben Cardin comes on [the radio] with me all the time, because he enjoys the process of being on with these listeners who don't like his politics. So I wasn't surprised when Ben called, because we're kind of friends."

But, Smith says with some surprise still in his voice, "[Maryland Comptroller] Peter Franchot called — offered to help me get treatments. Doug Gansler called — the attorney general. I got a handwritten letter from Martin O'Malley that was warm and genuine. I got a letter from [Sen. Barbara] Mikulski. You'll notice these are all liberal Democrats, and they all had the wherewithal to do that, which I really appreciate. Doug Gansler, I had never met him, I don't think, but he knows me. … I mean, that kind of response is amazing to me, and it continues."

It continues via cards, emails, letters, phone calls and personal visits, according to Smith's wife, June. The story of Smith's life these days is that of a community reaching out to someone they came to respect as a result of his decades of work on local airwaves. Some knew only the on-air persona, but they sensed an authenticity to the man behind the voice — and they are finding confirmation of that hunch in the way Smith is now handling a cancer that has metastasized throughout his body.

The Smiths had 15 visitors on Saturday and 18 on Sunday, says June, trying to offer a sense of how many colleagues and friends have been making their way up I-83 to spend some time with the broadcaster who only somewhat mischievously referred to himself as "the voice of reason."

"It's as though they want to have one more lesson by their favorite professor," she says of the visitors who have been coming to chat in the Smith family room — and parking up the cul de sac where the family home sits.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dave Durian, veteran morning anchor on WBAL radio, had just taken his leave with a few words of camaraderie, when members of the Vitale family, owners of Aldo's and other area restaurants, began arriving with two chefs, a waiter and a van filled with an eight-course meal for the Smith family. When they took their leave several hours later, they left behind Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner for the Smith household.

"We all face death, but few of us confront it," Sergio Vitale says. "And Ron and June and family are confronting it with grace and courage. And for me and my family, it's an inspiration. Afterward, they were thanking us, but I said, 'Actually the gift was yours to us.'"

One of the ways the Smiths are confronting death is through what June calls "card therapy."

"That's where we sit quietly each evening in our family room and we open each and every card, and we read every message, note, letter, book and blessing that comes our way," she says.

She shared some of the messages in the cards and letters:

"Thank you for allowing us symbolically to walk with you on this journey," one listener wrote. "We have been together for so many years."

"You make us laugh and you make us cry, but most of all, you make us think," said another note.

"I thought I'd learned it all in college until I began listening to you, Professor Smith," a fan concluded.

And then there's "microphone therapy," according to June.

That occurs on those days when Smith still feels well enough to be on the WBAL airwaves between 9 a.m. and noon weekdays. He appeared twice last week — once with Marta Mossburg and once with Jimmy Mathis, who were co-hosting his show from WBAL's studios on Television Hill in Baltimore.

Smith is connected via the Internet, thanks to a small desk unit installed in his home by WBAL. It sits next to a computer in an office on the second floor that has become a remote studio for the station when Smith is on the air.

"It's his highest calling," June says of the role that being on the radio continues to play in Smith's life. "It's where his heart is. He loves his family and his friends, but he truly loves his microphone and his audience."

Smith simply says: "It's what I do. It's who I am. It's my creative expression. Look, that's not going to continue for a whole long time, obviously. But as long as I can do it a few days a week, I will. First of all, the audience appreciates it. I appreciate it. I'm not ready to give it up yet — though I will be, I'm sure."

Despite his newfound perspective on the nonessential nature of politics, Smith spent much of the interview reflecting on how his opposition to the war in Iraq cost him "30 to 40 percent" of his audience, how closed the presidency of Barack Obama is to "voices of dissent," and the way America is now "cleft" between those who see the nation in decline and those who see it moving toward a "progressive utopia." But he mainly shared those thoughts in answers to questions posed — not by his own selection.

When asked if there was anything he'd like to say, Smith did hesitate and close his eyes while considering his thoughts.

"Yeah," he finally said, "it's a funny thing that Baltimore would be the place where I would settle and do my most important work. I never would have thought of that — it just happened. People would say, 'Why aren't you syndicated? Why aren't you national?' I never had a burning ambition to be a real big shot. I just wanted to do my thing. And they let me do it here without interference.

"I mean, I can't imagine what would have happened if I'd have been in places where they tried to manage me day to day, topic to topic. It would have strangled me. It would have suffocated me. So I knew enough to be content with what I had here. And it's all worked out wonderfully well — except for this little glitch at the end."