Doug & Polly Smith, Photographed in Grand Island, NY, 2000.

Remembering Doug Smith, king of the roadside

One of the more rewarding parts of my work with Roadside Magazine has steadily turned into one of its saddest. A magazine about classic diners and other roadside attractions started while in my 30s predictably turned out readers older than myself, who often became an invaluable resource for us. They directed me to many hidden gems, and their colorful stories about the era where the diner reigned as queen of the roadside gave urgency to our mission. Members of this generation became some of our biggest fans, and some became good friends.

Yesterday, I had the sad honor of attending a memorial service for the dearest of these friends, Doug Smith. If you don’t recall the name, you might when you combine it with that of his indefatigable wife, Polly, his co-pilot of nearly 58 years.

The news of Doug’s passing at 81 stung painfully. In recent years, our correspondences had fallen off as my interest in all-things-roadside had waned and his health began to fade. It profoundly saddened me, because his presence had always loomed large in how I approached the magazine. Doug’s long career in the media, from newspapers to television to sports reporting and play-by-play announcing — and more — made him something of a role-model and mentor for me.

Unfortunately, our bootstrapped little rag couldn’t quite accommodate all of Doug’s rather prolific reporting. Looking back through my archives, I find a folder two-inches thick with reports and story ideas over the years, and he clearly wanted to help. I started the magazine because I loved diners. Doug loved diners. Turns out Doug also loved trains and baseball as well. His passion for those things made me look like a piker. Little did I realize it at the time, but I had created a magazine about all of Doug’s favorite things. I could have easily just called the thing Doug and Polly and put their photo on every cover.

Roadside Issue 34
Our “Minors and Diners” issue, with its feature written by Doug and Polly Smith.

In 1997, we finally published Doug and Polly’s first Roadside feature, “Minors and Diners,” which vividly recounted their trip from Palatka, Florida back up to Niagara Falls. Along the way, they stopped off and visited every diner and minor league baseball park they could cram in the itinerary. Readers ate it up, and for good reason. Few people could so easily get on paper Doug’s penchant for turning a phrase or his groan-inducing puns in quite the same way. Doug had a quick mind, a big heart, and a knack for turning strangers into friends. His style served as a model for much of what I hoped to accomplish with all our content.

The original demise of the magazine in 2001 was painful in many ways, but especially because it killed Doug and Polly’s account of their trip along “America’s Other Road: Route 62”. Originally pitched to me in 1999, we had absolutely no place to put a 9500 word odyssey into a 32-page magazine.

When we suddenly found ourselves with a real budget and twice as much space after the magazine’s sale, we could not only publish the story, but we planned to portray the couple on the cover in an illustration by nationally renown artist Mark Zingarelli. Sadly, it never happened, and to the best of my knowledge, no one else published this opus either.

I last saw Doug when he came for a visit in 2012. He arrived by train, of course, and naturally we went to the nearest diner. The year before, we lost a mutual friend who died only two weeks after my last visit. Before then, I hadn’t seen this friend in eleven years. The shock of that news prompted me to resolve to spend more time with people I actually care about. Having Doug visit helped me stay true to that promise, and having him in my home greatly honored me.

Doug told stories by trade for which he had few peers. His skill for observation, his drive, and his passion for simple fun allowed him to process that information into some of the most entertaining prose we had the pleasure of publishing. He spoke directly and did not mosey to the point. Regarding my work, his fandom did not mean I escaped his critical eye by any means. A helpful jab from Doug meant more to me than a dozen letters of praise from casual readers.

I’ll miss you Doug. For you, I raise my glass of Maker’s Mark. You were a true American original.

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