Gordon Smith

Obituary of Gordon Donn Smith

Gordon Donn Smith, 73, a 45-year Monterey resident, peacefully passed away at his home on June 13, 2023.   Gordon had suffered several years from Inclusion-Body myositis, a rare degenerate and disabling muscle disease.

He was a conservationist, Vietnam war veteran, a graduate student, a CHP dispatcher, a neighborhood leader, a city board member, a college instructor, a building contractor, a world traveler, a writer, a poet, a lover, a peace activist and a veterans’ advocate.

He touched people’s lives with his kindness and compassion. He saved lives with medical donations. He was a loving mentor and very generous benefactor to children of disadvantaged and impoverished families. He was a moody grouch at times, but always a reliable friend who didn’t take shit from anyone.

Gordon was a good troublemaker. He was a fearless non-conformist and often questioned authority and encouraged others to do the same. He was an iconoclast who the Coast Weekly once called “Monterey’s resident Vietnam veteran rabble-rouser.”

Gordon was a direct descendant of Puritan Colonist William Sabin, the 1644 founder of Rehoboth, Massachusetts whose mill was burned and son killed in the First Indian War by Natives in 1676.

Gordon was born to George Sabin Smith and Arlene Smith in Cloquet, Minnesota on March 1, 1950, the youngest of three children. His family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when he was five months old. His Danish immigrant grandmother and great grandfather later moved to nearby Redwood City.

Gordon attended Lutheran parochial schools in both Oakland and Hayward. He was a Boy Scout, played Little League baseball, delivered the Oakland Tribune newspaper and mowed the church lawn on Saturdays. He went to annual two-week Scout Summer Camp in the high Sierras. His family went on interesting summer vacations that included visits to distant relatives, family farms, historical sites, museums and National Parks.

The Smith family moved to Arden Park in Sacramento’s North Area when his father accepted a job promotion at the State Capitol. Gordon loved the nearby American River and the open space of the surrounding undeveloped land.  At the age of thirteen he visited and worked a month on a family friend’s dairy farm in Arkansas where he learned to milk cows, drive a pickup and tractor. He was appalled to see the Jim Crow harsh mistreatment of blacks in the rural south.  

He loved the freedom of the road owning motorcycles at a young age.  He bought a Yamaha 80 when he was fourteen and a Honda 250 Scrambler when he was fifteen. He rode them illegally on the streets for a year and a half until his father was cited in 1965 by the CHP for allowing Gordon to ride under age. He bought a 1955 Chevy that he fixed up when he was sixteen.  Because he had skipped a grade, he was the youngest to graduate in Rio Americano’s original Class of 1967. He maintained a lifelong friendship with his first love, high school girlfriend Laurel Hagan and many other Rio classmates.                                    

Gordon started college at the young age of seventeen during the Summer of Love. He was at best a mediocre student, but more importantly, he did see Janis, Jimi, Country Joe, the Doors and many other groups live back in the day. He did not wear flowers in his hair as Scott McKinsey suggested, but gladly experienced the times and counterculture of the late 1960s.

During his sophomore year in college, he was arrested for marijuana with a group friends in a residential house. The judge dismissed his pot charges contingent that Gordon joined the military. He reluctantly enlisted in the USAF and was stationed in racist Selma, Alabama for training as an Air Operations Specialist. Within a year of his enlistment, he was surprised to be deployed to Vietnam.

Gordon was fortunate to be assigned to 834th Air Division at Bien Hoa. He was a mission controller at “Rocket Alley” (Airlift Command Element) moving C-7s, C-123s and C-130s tactical cargo planes. Their mission was to move “beans, bullets and bodies from the Delta to the DMZ.” He went on one detail where he was the only American involved with loading of over one-hundred wounded Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army prisoners. In his free time, he would hang out with Army helicopter crews or fly around the country. Gordon opposed the war he was trapped in and proudly joined VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR while he was still in-country.  He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in minimum time and was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal which he refused.

Gordon couldn’t adjust to stateside military life after Vietnam and refused to take NCO supervisory responsivity of junior airmen. His commander took away his access to firearms and eventually gave him an early out. Within a month of his discharge, he hitch-hiked cross country to New York with a childhood buddy, then flew to Iceland and Luxemburg. He told some people he was a Canadian as he backpacked around Europe for two months to see the sights, visit old country relatives and clear his head and figure out what he should do next.

Gordon returned to school in earnest on the G.I. Bill. He was an honor student and earned a BA in Psychology and a second BA in Environmental Studies from California State University Sacramento. He researched and wrote term papers on; Post Vietnam Syndrome (PTSD prior to the 1980 addition to the DSM111), Lifeboat Ethics (Competing theories on overpopulation and starvation), and Commercial and Aboriginal Whaling and International Whaling Commission.

He became a California State Certified Energy Auditor and a Solar Technology Instructor at Monterey Peninsula College. He worked as a California State licensed General Building Contractor. He loved framing and finish carpentry. He built houses including his present passive-solar house in Monterey.

Gordon first got involved in government politics in 1975 when he volunteered to circulate a petition that banned cruel, steel-jaw animal traps in California. In 1978 he bought a fixer-upper house in Monterey near Del Monte Beach for $36,000 and rebuilt it. In 1984 he founded the Villa Del Monte Neighborhood Association after he secured $30,000 then a total of $80,000 of Federal Block Grant money for constructing sidewalks, curbs and gutters along his street. The mayor later credited Gordon for inspiring Monterey’s new city-wide Neighborhood Improvement Program. 

Gordon was very troubled by the senselessness and illegality of the war especially the combat deaths of his close high school buddies and comrades he served with in Vietnam. He never wrote home about Vietnam or talked to his family about it. He did not talk much about Vietnam for fourteen years.  He got involved in veterans’ politics in 1984 when his then girlfriend encouraged him to see THE WALL that was temporarily on display in Monterey. The experience set him on a meaningful journey of working with, and for veterans. With twelve other veterans he cofounded the newly formed Vietnam Veterans of Monterey County and joined several other veteran groups that took him around the world.

Gordon was the first Vietnam veteran to return to build medical clinics in Vietnam at a time when there were no diplomatic relations with the U.S.  In 1988 as the representative of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project Gordon ignored discouragement from the U.S. State Department and traveled to Vietnam with an entry visa arranged at the United Nations and an invitation in hand from the Nguyen Co Thach, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister. He worked with Hanoi and local officials and accepted a building plot of land in Vung Tau. In 1989 Gordon broke ground with officials and Purple Heart veteran, Ruben Gomez. A month later fourteen other Vietnam war veterans joined them and built the Vung Tau Clinic in partnership local Vietnamese. Several more VVRP clinics were built in subsequent year. 

Because of the restrictive US trade embargo after the war, it was illegal to bring medical supplies to Vietnam so Gordon started the NGO Project Hearts & Minds and received a U.S. Federal Humanitarian license from the U.S. Treasury Department to legally deliver medical supplies to Vietnam and Cambodia. After 29 years of an embargo on Cuba, Gordon received an extension on his Humanitarian license to include Cuba. He brought medical supplies to many places including the new Vung Tau clinic, the My Lai clinic, the Hue hospital, the Cambodian Red Cross in Phenom Penh, and the Cuban Red Cross in Havana. He later delivered medical supplies to veterans in Khaskstan and to FMLN guerillas in the Chalatenango mountains in El Salvador.

During the 1990 U.S. buildup to the Gulf War, Gordon started the Monterey chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP) and was President for several years.  He was also the Past Commander of the leftist “Wage Peace” Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 5888 in Santa Cruz. 

In May of 1995 two FBI special agents were sent to his house “to investigate him further to determine if he was a viable Unabomber suspect” when his name was included on the FBI’s “short list of 200 suspects…after receiving a tip.” His FBI file number is 16518H.

Gordon is probably best known locally for getting Army tanks banned from Monterey’s July 4th parade. He felt strongly that a Soviet-style display of military weapons in an American parade was inappropriate and a harbinger to war. In 1991 and again in 1998 he planned, organized and led a local contingent of combat veterans to stop the Army tank while participating in the parade downtown. Friend and Attorney Michael Stamp conducted a civil-disobedience-arrest workshop on July 3rd at Gordon’s house. Several people joined the tank protest at the parade, but only Gordon and three other war veterans were willing to be arrested and prosecuted. The protest was a success which resulted in the elimination of future Army tanks appearances in Monterey parades. 

The following year Gordon decided to give the greater Monterey community an Independence Day parade honoring real war heroes instead of war machines. He entered a Veterans for Peace contingent in the 4TH of July parade that included: Vietnam Helicopter Pilot - Hero of My Lai, HUGH THOMPSON/ Vietnam Helicopter door gunner - Hero of My Lai, LARRY COLBURN/ Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient CHARLIE LITEKEY/ Vietnam Navy pilot-eight year P.O.W. PHIL BUTLER/ Korea combat medic, RALPH NONELLA/ Desert Rock Atomic veteran, RAYMOND NONELLA/  Vietnam Peace Activist, BRIAN WILLSON/ WWII Navy W.A.V.E. - Admiral Nimitz driver, ARLYNE SMITH/ Navy veteran – “Fixin to Die” (1, 2, 3, 4, What Are We Fighting For?) singer-songwriter, County Joe McDonald.

As a veteran’s advocate, Gordon was mentored on Veterans Disability & Benefits Law by Dave Ewing, the attorney at San Francisco’s Swords to Plowshares. For several years Gordon wrote winning PTSD disability claims and appeals for deserving combat veterans that had previously been unfairly denied by the VA. 

Gordon was one of eight members, often the front man for the grassroots group KEEP FORT ORD WILD. Gordon and Attorney Alexander Hansen once got an injunction to stop the illegal clear-cutting of 12 acres of protected Ft. Ord wildlands.  KFOW members rallied support to opposed and eventually defeated the proposed 26-acre Monterey Downs subdivision at Fort Ord.  On his own initiative he designed, cut, named and maintained trails. Gordon defied non-veteran opposition and supported the building of the California State Veterans Cemetery at Fort Ord. After Gordon addressed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at a Marina town hall meeting in February 2012, the Lands Conservation Foundation sent Gordon to Washington D.C. to lobby officials at the Pentagon, the Bureau of Land Management, and Senators Feinstein and Boxer to support President Obama’s Executive Order to create the new Fort Ord National Monument.  Feinstein was a holdout at first but eventually gave in to his rational. Gordon returned to Washington in March at the suggestion of Whitehouse staff to be in a group photo shaking hands with president Obama. The Fort Ord National Monument was officially dedicated in July 2012.

Gordon’s curiosity led him to several infamous locations: the Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, Pearl Harbor, the Bergen-Belsen NAZI concentration camp in Germany, ground-zero at Hiroshima, Check-point Charlie in East Berlin, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the Hanoi Hilton and massacre sites at My Lai, Vietnam and Mazote, El Salvador.

He traveled to all the States and fifty-one countries in the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific islands.  He hitch-hiked, trekked, took motorcycles, buses, trains, boats and planes. He was an early member of the Mile High Club. Gordon slept in castles, private homes, hotels, hostels, tents, decks of tramp steamers and beachfront bamboo huts.

He trekked the foothills of Mt. Everest in Nepal and the Outback of Australia. He surfed Sunset Beach at North Shore and windsurfed at Kaneohe in Hawaii. He explored the ancient Khmer and Mayan ruins at Angkor Watt and Tekal.  He viewed Lenin’s embalmed body on public display at Red Square and Ho Chi Minh’s body on displayed In Hanoi. He swam with stingrays off Cayman Island and sea turtles off Waikiki. He smoked opium with tribesmen in Burma and drank beer with Aborigines in Australia. He ate meals and drank beer in My Lai with village officials and ate Passover diner with Holocaust survivors. He was once detained by the KGB for spending greenbacks on Arbot Street in Moscow. He was robbed at knifepoint on the beach in Montego Bay and smoked ganga with Milan fashion models in Negril. He sailed to New Guinea and Bora Bora, dove in Belize, Fiji and the Great Barrier Reef. In New Zealand’s South Island, he hiked on the Franz Joseph glacier and bungee-jumped off the legendary Kawarau River Bridge near Queensland. Gordon wasn’t into profession sports, he liked to form his own groups with friends: he started the Portola Poker Palace Players (social gamblers), Vietnam Veterans Longboard Society (surfers), the Merry Bikester Literary Society (motorcyclists), the Easy Street Seniors 9-Ball Tournament (billiards), the Flash Mob Posse, (mountain bikers) and the Veterans Wild Fort Ord (hikers, mountain bikers and runners).

Gordon was a precocious athlete and was big for his age. He lettered in freshman wrestling when he was thirteen. He set weightlifting records when he was fifteen. In years past he liked to run in 10-K events, swim laps, weight train, ski, surf, wind surf, golf, and SCUBA diving. and mountain bike. In his fifties he hiked and taught surfing at Waikiki Beach. In his sixties, he rode mountain bikes and regularly hiked his Fort Ord “Happy Trails” with his border collies, Toby and Ernie.

Gordon was a fit and handsome extrovert who could be glib, funny and charming. The girls and ladies liked him and he loved many of them in return.  He had many girlfriends, and was married in 2022.

 He collected art, ephemera, antiques, eclectic music, old rock concert posters, vintage Honda motorcycles and vintage cars. He was a serious photographer for many years. He enjoyed 9-Ball tournaments, NY crossword puzzles and watching JEOPARDY! with friends.

One thing he learned during 30 years of hosting poker nights with special friends at his Portola Poker Palace was:

You got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.

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A Memorial Tree was planted for Gordon
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