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County lost fine musician, even better man, in Smith

Make no mistake about it, Martin Leonard Smith Jr. was a musician, first and foremost, with the heart of a patriot.

The 68-year-old Ironton native died last week after a battle with cirrhosis of the liver. A mainstay at the front of the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade for years, Smith's melodies on the trumpet and bagpipes will be missed by many, but not nearly as much as the man himself.

Though he offered touching renditions of "Taps" or "Amazing Grace" at countless funeral and patriotic events, Smith masterfully played the symphony of life, touching the lives of so many people.

The thing I noticed about Marty was that he never wanted recognition for what he did. It was always about the event or about the fallen soldier, never about him.

Even as his health declined, Smith could still be seen at the Lawrence County Courthouse or in the parade, with that same spark in his eyes. It was a spark that I first saw more than 3 years ago and that came back to me upon hearing the news of his passing.

I was an inexperienced reporter, at The Tribune for less than six months. It was September 2002 and the images of 9/11 were still fresh as the one-year anniversary approached.

My job was to cover a recognition ceremony at the Ironton Fire Station. Still learning my way around, I stood off to the side and observed the ceremony that I quickly realized was going to be more than just a token of support.

As the flag was lowered to half-mast, Smith, dressed in full uniform, stepped from the shadows and let the notes of, "Taps" pour from his lips, through the trumpet and into the blue sky.

Firefighters, police officers and residents all joined together to pay respects. It is safe to say that many eyes moistened and handkerchiefs were drawn. Smith stoically played on.

The most telling comment came from a young child, no more than 6 or 7 years old, who was there with his mother. The blond-haired youth looked at his mom and asked something to the effect of, "Who is that man, Mommy?"

To which his mother replied, "He is a soldier, honey."

Never missing a beat, the boy smiled and said, "He's a hero like the firemen that died, isn't he?"

The woman's answer was drowned out by applause from the hundred or so gathered on the street, but I think the boy saw much for someone his age. Later, I asked Smith what he thought of the comment and he just chuckled.

"I'm no hero," the 30-year U.S. Army veteran basically said. "I just play from the heart."

Well, Marty, many would disagree with you on that point.

Somewhere, in that big brass band in the sky, the likes of jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie are probably welcoming a new member.

Did Marty reach their levels of fame? Nope, but he played from the heart.

Michael Caldwell is the managing editor of The Ironton Tribune. Caldwell can be reached at (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.