James Smart, 91, of Mount Airy, a longtime reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin and Roxborough Review, author, historian, media and communications specialist, and freelance writer, died Friday, April 15, of a brain abscess at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton Township.
Mr. Smart rose from copyboy to award-winning reporter to revered columnist in a 25-year career at the Bulletin. He wrote a column called “In Our Town” from 1959 to 1973 that focused on city life, history, celebrities, holidays, his children, the family dog, and other topics that left readers with the sense he knew who they were and what was important to them.
“I still remember how friendly and funny he was,” said a person Mr. Smart interviewed years ago about Fourth of July celebrations. “It’s a memory that has stayed with me all these years,” they wrote in an online tribute. “This famous newspaper writer coming to see all of us! … He seemed to be one of the good guys.”
Mr. Smart was a history enthusiast and later, after he left the paper, wrote freelance stories for the Bulletin and The Inquirer about the Revolutionary War, the 1976 national bicentennial, the city’s history, and famous and not-so-famous people and events.
“Folks who have lived in Philadelphia since the FDR administration, give or take a president, consider transit strikes just another local tradition, like the Mummers Parade, dead people voting or pretzel mustard,” he wrote in a 1998 opinion piece for The Inquirer. “Old-timers learned long ago the tricks of getting to work during a strike.”
He wrote an eclectic weekly column called “Of All Things” for more than three decades for the Roxborough Review, and worked in public relations, advertising, editing, and publishing after his Bulletin career. His collected writings are housed in the urban archives at Temple University under the heading “James Smart’s Philadelphia.”
“He was an empathetic person,” said his daughter, Leslie Zavodnick. “He was curious, so he always wanted to get the story. But he did not come on strong and worked and wrote in a respectful way.”
He published four books, including 1995′s Soggy Shrub Rides Again and Other Improbabilities, a collection of his many columns, and 2011′s Adonijah Hill’s Journal: Diary of a Philadelphia Reporter in 1876. “This book is a history buff’s delight for sure,” a reviewer wrote of Hill’s Journal.
He graduated from and later taught at the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Center City and was profiled in both the The Inquirer and Chestnut Hill Local. He never really retired. “I loved to write,” he told The Inquirer in 2011.
Born April 27, 1930, in Kensington, Mr. Smart was encouraged to consume classic literature and newspapers by his father, a prodigious reader himself. He became the editor of the Megaphone, the school newspaper at Northeast High School — then at Eighth and Lehigh — wrote articles for the Bulletin’s kids section, and sold freelance stories to magazines.
He graduated from Northeast in 1948, declined a one-year scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and got a job as a copyboy at the Bulletin. He lucked his way into a couple of writing assignments, and the editors, seeing his industriousness and obvious writing skills, promoted him to reporter.
Longtime columnist Earl Selby became the paper’s city editor in 1959, and Mr. Smart, by then an award-winning reporter, replaced Selby, changed the focus of “In Our Town” from investigations and politics to human interest, and went on to write the column until he resigned from the paper in 1973.
He met Joy Lovett at a church picnic when he was 16. They married after high school, had son Stephen and daughter Leslie, and lived in Philadelphia, Croydon, and Langhorne. His wife died in 1973.
He worked with and then married graphic designer Barbara Torode in 1977, and they lived in Center City and Mount Airy until she died in 2019.
Mr. Smart liked to garden, could fix practically anything around the house, ran model trains at Christmas, and watched Phillies games on TV. “Mostly,” said his son, “he concentrated on work and his family. He loved meeting people.”
In addition to his children, Mr. Smart is survived by three grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, a sister, and other relatives.
A celebration of his life is to be held later.
Donations in his name may be made to Mighty Writers, 1501 Christian St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.