We often speak of the “good life” and about “great Americans,”
but it is not often that we come across a “great American life.”
A great American life not only includes, as I see it, material
successes and accomplishments, but also reveals certain qualities of
character and innate integrity that are distinctly emblematic of the
special brand of the American personality --- a brand forged in our
war of independence, our Civil War, two World Wars, the Industrial
Revolution, and our evolving and distinctive signature of
I have met a few persons, both men and women, who have lived, or
are living, a “great American life.” One of them, Julius C. Smith,
has just died at the age of 88. He had a long life, but it wasn’t just a
good life. It was a great and very American life.
Let me explain.
Jules (everyone called him that) was born in Minneapolis in 1930.
He was very tall --- about 6 feet 9 inches in height. He was very
athletic and very smart. From the outset he was a devout Catholic,
and remained so all of his life.
At St. John’s Preparatory School in Minnesota, and later at the
University of Minnesota, he played varsity basketball. He even did a
season of semi-professional basketball in Puerto Rico one summer.
But Jules Smith’s ambitions were not in professional sports. They
were in a career in the law. He received his J.D. from the University of
Minnesota Law School, and then went to Washington, DC to work as
a legislative assistant. He was advised to abandon D.C., and return
home to practice law. This he did, joining a firm in the small town of
Chaska, about 50 miles from downtown Minneapolis. At the same
time. he embarked on a lifelong career in public service. It began in
Chaska, but soon he was involved in early efforts to establish
metropolitan government services in the area around and including
the Twin Cities. It wasn’t glamorous or high-publicity work --- it was
the nuts-and-bolts work that created and maintained the sewers, roads,
public transportation, and land planning which invisibly but vitally
make American community daily life possible.
Having established a reputation for legal real estate work, he was
approached by a visionary state senator in the mid-1960s, and asked
to assemble rural properties in Chaska to create the first Title IV
new town in the nation. This he skillfully did, and the new town of
Jonathan was born in 1968. Jules Smith was its vice president and
general counsel. He also took a lead role in the national League of
New Communities, made up of more than a dozen Title IV new towns
that had sprung up across the country. I met Jules when I moved to
Jonathan in 1971.
When a recession in the 1970s upended the federal new town
program, he moved on, teaching very popular real estate development
courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota’s
Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs; and establishing in Maryland
a renaissance festival which soon became a successful family
business run by four of his six children. This festival, now in
Annapolis, has grown and endured over the years, and is one of the
largest and most authentic of its kind in the nation.
In 1989, Jules and I created the International Conference Foundation,
a non-profit organization that sponsored educational public policy
symposia. This grew also into the international visitor programs of
the U.S. Information Agency and U.S. State Department in which we
acted as hosts and guides for more than 500 international public
officials touring the U.S. Jules was the Foundation’s president for
almost 20 years, and relished explaining America to, and entertaining,
world figures in Minnesota and in his home.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed him, on the
recommendation of then-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, to be on the
Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and in 1993, Governor Arne Carlson
appointed him as a district member of the Metropolitan Council.
He was reappointed to the latter by the next two governors, serving
longer than anyone else, and was known informally as its “institutional
memory” before retiring in 2007.
As a real estate development attorney, Jules Smith had few peers, and
his family festival business grew large, but that’s only part of his story.
He married, and had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. His
wife Mary (whom he always described as his best friend) was a figure in
her own right, creating the local library system and then running a
regional cable TV system. They lived in the new town of Jonathan, but
their happy family life was later shattered when Mary died of cancer in
1989. Jules did not re-marry.
He was not elected to office, but he served for several years as the
Chaska city attorney, and earlier as a special secretary in the office of
a Minnesota governor. He was too tall to serve in the army, but he was
a lifelong supporter of the U.S. military. He traveled all over the world,
but he loved being an American. He passionately read about U.S.
history, world events, and had a special interest in the life of Winston
Churchill. He had numerous friends from all walks of life. He had an
exceptional sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. His
compassion for others was all-encompassing.
In short, he was not only an exceptional man in size, curiosity, healthy
ambition, and intellect, he was a good man, a man of integrity and faith,
and he was a devoted husband, father and friend.
Jules Smith lived a great American life.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.