In Derby: Kermit Smith recalls a day when apartments were $10 a week

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Kermit Smith regales a crowd at the Derby Historical Society with stories from his life.  Photos by Joseph Gresser
Kermit Smith regales a crowd at the Derby Historical Society with stories from his life. Photos by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle October 1, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

DERBY — Kermit Smith was canny enough to ensure a return engagement before the Derby Historical Society. When he addressed the group’s annual meeting Sunday afternoon, he held back some of his best material, promising to share stories of his political career in another talk.

The former state senator and the Legislature’s Sergeant at Arms for many years did come prepared with a collection of stories from his own life and the history of Derby.

Mr. Smith recalled his early days, starting with his marriage to Beverly Kilborn in 1949. Unfortunately, he slipped for a moment, claiming to have been wed in 1965 before correcting himself. That caught the attention of his son Brian, who was born in 1951.

“You better not have been married in 1965, Dad” he said.

The elder Mr. Smith quickly got his revenge. Thanking his audience for their prompt attention he noted approvingly, “Brian is on time today. He was on time last week, too, and no one else was here.”

Mr. Smith went on uninterrupted for a time, relating his early days of marriage and living in Newport. He had a job at the A&P, which stood where the Emory Hebard State Office Building is today, and his wife worked for an insurance agency. Together, Mr. Smith said, they earned about $65 a week, which was sufficient for their needs.

The young couple rented an apartment for $10 a week, which included all utilities but gas. Mr. Smith recalled that occasionally his wife made him run outside to put a quarter in the gas meter so she could continue her cooking.

The Smiths moved to Derby in 1952, buying a big house that was fully furnished.

Mr. Smith recalled visiting the old Derby Academy when Brian was a young student. He brought a movie camera to film the class.

The teacher told all the students to move into another classroom.

“That was the only time Brian minded the teacher,” Mr. Smith concluded.

“I’m going to start heckling you soon,” the younger Mr. Smith promised.

Former state Senator Kermit Smith shows a poster that he claims he will use should he ever run for office again.
Former state Senator Kermit Smith shows a poster that he claims he will use should he ever run for office again.

In 1986 when he was preparing to move, Mr. Smith arranged for an auction of the furniture he bought with the house.

“I was a young fellow, I didn’t care for old stuff,” he recalled. “I should have, but I didn’t.”

Auctioneer Thomas Hirchak showed up at the house with a tape recorder and went from room to room assessing the furnishings.

Mr. Smith recalled the auctioneer found a medical kit dating from the Civil War, which included a certificate attesting to the qualifications of the doctor who used it.

“He told me to call collectors,” Mr. Smith said. “To me, it looked like something you’d throw out.”

He took the auctioneer’s advice and the kit sold for $1,600.

Another item Mr. Smith thought due for the scrap heap was a Roy Rogers lunch pail. That also fetched a good price.

When all was said and done, the auction brought in more than he paid for the house, even after Mr. Hirchak took his well-earned commission.

“And we still had enough furniture to take wherever we wanted to go,” he concluded.

Turning his attention to the Derby school Mr. Smith brought out a list of 15 contract conditions that teachers in the early twentieth century had to adhere to.

These included not getting married during the school year, not wearing bright colors, not riding in a carriage or motor car with a man who is not your father or brother, and not leaving town without the permission of school authorities.

Mr. Smith said he had been on school boards and thought such conditions would not be well received these days.

He reminded his listeners that Derby Academy began its life in the 1840s when the Baptist convention was looking for a site for a theological seminary. They chose Derby because of the hardworking people and their moral character, he said.

Even in his childhood, Mr. Smith said, school days began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. He said it would be good if it were possible to reinstitute such a practice.

Finally, Mr. Smith encouraged members of the Derby Historical Society to support its plan to do restoration work on the old Derby Academy building. He said many people have insurance policies they think are worthless. In many cases, such policies will pay out something on their owner’s death.

He said he had one such policy. His four sons are listed as beneficiaries, he said, but he recently added the Derby Historical Society, cutting down his children’s share from 25 percent to 20 percent.

“What?” shouted Brian Smith.

After his father concluded his remarks, Brian Smith showed he had no hard feelings by offering a book entitled Chisels, Chissels, Chizzels, to his father.

After affectionately heckling his father during his presentation, Brian Smith presented a book to his father, Kermit, at the Derby Historical Society’s annual meeting Sunday.
After affectionately heckling his father during his presentation, Brian Smith presented a book to his father, Kermit, at the Derby Historical Society’s annual meeting Sunday.

The book, he said, was a gift from its author, James Bassett, who inscribed it to Mr. Smith — “To Kerm, a longtime friend, a fine man, even if a Democrat.”

When Mr. Smith said he would like to give it to the Derby Historical Society, Brian Smith advised him to read it first.

Two members of the society thought they saw an ulterior motive in the son’s suggestion.

“I think he wants you to leave it to him,” Bill Gardyne said.

“Twenty percent of it, anyway,” Allen Yale chipped in.”

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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