SOUTH PORTLAND — Clarence Smith is the kind of guy you might pass on the street with nary a thought.
Unremarkable looks. Small frame. Just a guy, going through life. But spend a few minutes learning how this humble 78-year-old spends his “retirement” years and you’ll be blown away.
“I contacted Beacon Hospice in South Portland three years ago,” Smith explained, “because I wanted to work with veterans who are dying. They’ve been through such awful stuff, like killing women and children. Now I just go wherever there’s a need.”
Where Smith goes is to the bedsides of dying people.
“As humans, we have a big fear of dying alone. I’m just there at the bedside to listen, to let people in their final days know that someone cares,” he said. “Sometimes the dying person isn’t even conscious, and I just sit there and talk quietly, because they say that hearing is the last thing to go.
“I have a talent for this kind of work,” he continued, “because I’m a good listener, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Being a hospice volunteer gets you to thinking about what’s important.”
When Smith isn’t being there for those who are dying, he’s helping provide shelter for those without a home. Every Wednesday he builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, and every Thursday he does bookkeeping for Habitat.
Before he got involved with hospice, Smith spent three years as a volunteer visitor at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
“I was just there to listen,” he said. “The patients got to unload on me.”
Smith also serves as an active member of Veterans for Peace. His duties include visiting Maine towns to talk about the large portion of the federal budget spent on the military.
“We should be spending some of that money on education and health care instead,” he said.
Smith has not always been a full-time volunteer, nor has he always been a Mainer. He worked in the Department of Health in Maryland for 25 years, before moving to Maine in 1985 because, he said, “there were too many crooks in the Maryland state government.”
After moving to Maine, Smith worked for 11 years at Spurwink Services as a teacher in the adult program and an administrator.
His wife, Catherine, who worked as a school psychologist in Maryland, shares his passion for service. She spends more than 30 hours a week in various volunteer activities, such as assisting Somali immigrants in Portland, and she’s currently learning Farsi.
The couple live in a modest house because, as Smith explained, “We want to spend our money on charity and travel.”
And travel they do. The Smiths have seen the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India and the Pieta in Vatican City. They’ve taken an African safari and marveled at the fjords of Norway and the wildlife at the Galapagos.
“I enjoy traveling to places I’ve only dreamed about and getting to know the places and peoples of the earth,” Smith said.
Despite his upbeat attitude, Smith is no Pollyanna.
“We all have problems,” he said. “But we have to face up to them as best we can.”
Smith is doing the best he can to assist the dying as well as the living.
“This is the best time of my life,” he said, laughing. “I’m having a ball.”
Part of a twice-monthly series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: firstname.lastname@example.org