I will never forget the first time Matt Brouillette and I met Thomas J. Smith.
Tom was in his glory—seated behind the desk in his home office where he had made so many decisions over the years regarding the coal businesses he had built, enjoying making a couple of guys in suits feel uncomfortable.
Matt and I were feeling most undignified, having just recently been asked to remove our shoes out of respect for “Mrs. Smith,” as Tom always called his wife when he was being wry (which was often). It was definitely the first time we had a business meeting in our stocking feet, and it was one of the first times we were asking a Pennsylvania entrepreneur to make a significant gift to support a dramatic escalation in the push for good policy in Pennsylvania.
When we finally summoned the courage to ask Tom for a fivefold increase in his support for the Commonwealth Foundation, he took great pleasure in replying that he would be glad to make the investment, on one condition: I had to be the one to tell “Mrs. Smith.”
That evening, very few Pennsylvanians knew anything about the entrepreneur, leader, and jokester behind that desk. I didn’t know him very well myself. But since then, many of the readers of this website have met Tom Smith personally, countless citizens of our commonwealth have learned about him through his run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 and his continued advocacy for good policy afterward, and he became for me personally, one of the men I most respect and admire in this world.
It is therefore only appropriate we met on December 7, 2010, the anniversary both of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of the birth of my grandfather and namesake, Charles F. Mitchell. While Tom was kidding about telling Saundy (pronounced “Sandy”) about his gift, he, Matt, and I were totally serious about our shared belief that the situation we were discussing that evening was no less a crisis than the one our nation faced in 1941, although certainly of a different character. This is why he loves to quote Winston Churchill’s famous acronym KBO, “Keep Buggering On!”
My admiration really began when I learned the story of the Smith family. Tom and Saundy have three biological daughters, Malinda, Allison, and Jessica. That’s more than enough for most people. But as Tom put it to me more than once, when “Number One, Two, and Three Daughters” were still teenagers, “Saundy and I decided we still had some fight left in us.”
Tom and Saundy therefore adopted four other children, Kimberly, Daisy, Lupita, and Domingo, all from the same family in South Texas. Those seven kids have given Tom and Saundy nine grandchildren so far, and “I don’t think all the fruit’s yet picked on that tree,” he loved to observe. “They are the reason” we must bring about fiscal sanity in government, he declared.
I also love what Tom and Saundy have done for their community. At their home outside Elderton, Armstrong County, about an hour northeast of Pittsburgh, they built a full-size gym that is in constant use, always free of charge. Virtually every time I saw Tom, I learned about some other person whom he helped in time of need, always to his own financial detriment. I can’t count all the times I’ve seen him quietly tell a waitress that he wants to pay for such-and-such a person’s meal. They have made transformative gifts, too, to the North American Lutheran Church, to which they belong.
Not only that, since that night in 2010, Tom Smith did more than any other person to move Pennsylvania toward the kind of huge policy victories we have seen in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states. Yes, he and Saundy have been unbelievably generous, but that is only the beginning.
Tom was one of the first men or women in Pennsylvania to see the need for the Keystone State to finally have the courage to strike at the root of bad policy—the power of the government unions—after pretending for years that we can survive without doing so.
Tom played the lead role in getting Matt and me together with the leaders of the fight in Wisconsin and Michigan, to learn their strategy from them personally. He chartered planes, made calls, and convened meetings in his gym and at that familiar desk.
Tom’s tenacity, courage, and leadership have encouraged Matt, our team, and me to keep at it on the days when we are tempted to give up (and believe me, they happen in this rotten business).
And Tom put countless miles on his cowboy boots, traveling this state and urging other entrepreneurs to follow him into the fight. No one has done more, not even close, to urge other entrepreneurs to step forward in the battle for our nation’s future than Tom, and nothing, including the work of the staff team Tom and Saundy’s generosity has allowed Matt and me to build, is more important than that.
I could go on much longer about what an honor it is to be associated with Tom and his family. He was not just a business associate; he was a dear friend.
That is why it was so devastating when Tom called me this summer to inform me that he had inoperable bile duct cancer. He told me then that the doctors estimated he had five to six months of life left, which has since elapsed. Tom passed away in his home, surrounded by the family that he loved so deeply, on October 17, 2015.
It humbles me to report that Tom had total peace about his diagnosis and prognosis. “I’ll be fighting until my last day,” he said. Just weeks before he passed, he was meeting with legislators, urging them to stand strong against the government unions’ destructive agenda, and calling other entrepreneurs to action. “I am so proud,” he said, of what he saw in Harrisburg as a result of the offensive strategy the Commonwealth Foundation and so many like-minded groups have executed over the last few years. Most of all, Tom had complete confidence that all his affairs were in the hands of a good and merciful God who redeemed him through Jesus Christ. “I thank my mother so much for my strong faith,” he said.
The last time I was with Tom, the list of those sending him good wishes, wisecracks, and prayers was so long I was beginning to lose track. Reflecting on that, I asked him what he would like me to tell all those who had been asking about him. “Tell those people it has been an honor and a pleasure to work alongside them,” he said. “And tell them to keep it going! KBO!”
Tom, I thank God for you and your family. I take it as my personal charge from you to keep the fight for your grandchildren, and my children, going—and to win! And on behalf of all those you continue to motivate and inspire…the honor and the pleasure have been ours.
Thomas J. Smith, Director Emeritus of the Commonwealth Foundation, passed away on October 17, 2015. His obituary can be viewed here.