By Mark Gutglueck
Mrs. Nancy Elizabeth (Kennedy-Deshon) Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 1, 1912, the daughter of Rex and Edith Kennedy. Orphaned at the age of four, Nancy was raised by her grandparents, Will and Della (DeSalyard) Deshon and soon adopted that surname. Della DeSalyard Deshon was a noted actress, artist and teacher, and raised Nancy as her own child, often on the theater stage as a mother-daughter act. Nancy acquired her early schooling in West Virginia and Illinois, living her adolescent years on the Southside of Chicago, graduating from high school, and attended the Chicago Normal College. After moving to California in 1933 with her grandmother, she had starring roles in six western films in 1935 and 1936, four of which were with the famous cowboy star, Bob Steele. After leaving the movie business, she studied music and other special courses at USC and obtained employment as an assistant in the program management department of the Warner Brothers Radio Station, KFWB, in Hollywood.
While working at KFWB, Miss Deshon met Mr. C. Lowell Smith, producer and newscaster. They were married two weeks after they met on August 16, 1944, by the groom’s father, the Reverend J. Bert Smith, a Baptist minister, and in 1948 they moved to San Bernardino, where Mr. Smith took a job as a broadcaster with KFXM Radio in the California Hotel in downtown San Bernardino. Later, he became a successful real estate broker and appraiser.
In 1956, running against ten men in the primary, and after walking the entire Fifth District, speaking with residents, and leaving notes with her home number for those who were not at their houses when she visited, Nancy Smith was elected in a landslide victory to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, representing the Fifth District. She became the second woman in the county’s history to be elected to this office, the first having been Magda Lawson of Needles, who served from 1952 to 1960.
Her husband was her manager through each of her electoral campaigns. He supported her in her political career despite the fact that her status as supervisor prevented him from aggressively pursuing making a lot of money in the real estate and appraisal business, primarily because he was fearful that doing so might reflect negatively on his wife. On more than once occasion, he was cheated out of money on real estate transactions, once for a rather huge amount, but he did not sue, as he didn’t want talk about it that might negatively impact on Nancy’s status as a supervisor.
A Democrat, she was close to Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Congressman Harry Sheppard, and Assemblyman John Quimby as well as several other Democratic political figures in the region during her tenure.
Smith served on the Advisory Board for Cal State San Bernardino for years, and in the early years worked in concert with and was a close friend of college president John Pfau. She was very close with Tino Garza, who also served on the advisory board and who was a prominent local attorney nominated for the California Supreme Court.
The prime mover behind the creation of the county’s “regional parks,” concept, which resulted in the Glen Helen and Yucaipa Regional Parks, she has since been considered for the honor of having the Glen Helen Regional Park named after her, although that eventuality has yet to be realized.
Her work on the board consumed most of her time, six days per week. She had no hobbies, but was a very religious woman, attending Judson Baptist Church in her local neighborhood.
Being a woman in political office at that time was not easy. Smith never made an issue of it, but if someone did, that person could be unpleasantly surprised.
In the 1960s, she defied the county’s highest ranking staff member, County Administrative Officer Robert Covington, when he ordered that women working for the county could not wear pantsuits. There was a bit a media frenzy when Smith, who was technically Covington’s boss, came to work in a pantsuit the following day.
She ran for State Senate in 1970. The Republicans opposed her, using a variety of campaign themes, including that it would cost too much to have to build a women’s restroom in the Senate Building in Sacramento while devising a campaign slogan that she was so great at what she was doing in San Bernardino that the voters needed to keep her at home. She was outspent 10 to one during the campaign and narrowly lost.
Mrs. Smith was the first woman in the county, and only the second in the state, to become chairwoman of the board of supervisors, serving in this capacity from December 3, 1962 to December 7, 1964 and again from January 3, 1973 to January 6, 1975.
Throughout her years on the board of supervisors, Mrs. Smith handed out business cards with her home phone number and home address. She took calls at home until 9 p.m., asking that Sunday callers wait until the afternoon. She always returned
her calls. It was not uncommon for her constituents to visit her at home.
During her five terms of service to the people of San Bernardino County, Mrs. Smith was elected in 1964 to the presidency of the Southern California Regional Association of County Supervisors, becoming the first woman to hold that office. She was the secretary-treasurer of that association during 1962 and 1963. Former Governor Edmund Brown appointed Mrs. Smith to the State Welfare Study Commission and to the Santa Ana Regional Water Pollution Control Board. A major federal assignment she was given was an appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to the Public Land Law Review Commission, which made a five-year study and subsequent recommendations to the Congress pertaining to public property, which comprise one third of the nation’s land.
Mrs. Smith served as a member of the County Council of Community Services, as director of the Tuberculosis Association, as an honorary director of the San Bernardino Chamber of Commerce, as chairwoman of the 1962 Arrowhead Fund Drive, as chairwoman of the Resolutions Committee of the County Supervisors Association of California, and as co-chairwoman of the Resolutions Committee of the County Supervisors Employment Program (which preceded the federal program). Mrs. Smith, with the other supervisors, was active in the National Association of Counties, working closely with the California Congressional delegation, pertaining to legislation affecting counties.
Mrs. Smith retired from the board on December 6, 1976, after twenty years of outstanding and dedicated service. She was succeeded by Robert Hammock of San Bernardino.
Following the retirement of her husband in 1978, the Smiths moved to Newport, Oregon. There they pursued their mutual hobbies as ham radio operators, both holding general class licenses. Nancy E. Smith undertook a life-long ambition to become a novelist. Her first tome was the story of her grandmother’s life as she knew it. She produced a second novel and several short stories. In her later years severe macular degeneration nearly blinded her and she had to forego that avocation. One of her novels was praised by a New York literary agent who gave suggestions for improving it, but increasing sight loss rendered her unable to see the screen on her computer monitor.
The Smiths had two children, son Gary Wenkle Smith, an attorney in San Bernardino who with his wife Pat had three sons; and daughter Sherry E. Bell, who was a personnel analyst for Marion Couty, Oregon and resides in Salem, Oregon, with her husband, Don. Nancy Smith had three grandsons, Jason, Aaron and Patrick, and a great grandson, Kaleb.
Death seized Nancy Smith on Friday, November 10, 2000 following a brief illness. She was 88.
There is a scholarship fund in her name at California State University San Bernardino. Donations in her memory will be gratefully accepted.
By Mark Gutglueck