C. Fraser Smith 1938-2021

The late journalist C. Fraser Smith. Publicity photo for "The Daily Miracle."

The intersecting worlds of Maryland journalism and politics are mourning C. Fraser Smith, a longtime chronicler of state government and politics who died Sunday after suffering a massive stroke earlier this month. He was 83.

Smith arrived at The Baltimore Sun in 1977 after stints at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J., and The Providence Journal in Providence, R.I. He quickly became a fixture on the political beat, reporting on Baltimore City Hall, the federal government and the Maryland State House, writing daily stories, political analysis, investigative pieces and commentary. He broke news, led coverage, revealed character traits, explained trends, won awards, and consistently delivered clean, elegant and incisive prose.

But Smith often wanted to delve deeper into the subjects he covered, so he also wrote books: One on the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias (“Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big-Time College Basketball”). One on the late governor and Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer (“William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography”). And one a look at the civil rights movement in Maryland (“Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland”).

The Schaefer book in particular is considered a staple in the Maryland political canon — written with only some cooperation from the cantankerous Schaefer, who once called Smith “a liar, a nitwit,” but with plenty of help, love and intel from Schaefer’s close-knit network of former aides.

Smith capped his career off with a memoir, published in late 2019: “The Daily Miracle: A Memoir of Newspapering.”

The book recounts a young Smith, fresh out of the Air Force and with zero journalism experience, trying to talk his way into an entry-level job at The New York Times in 1963. He was politely told to try The Jersey Journal, across the Hudson River, where an editor took a chance on him.

Two years later, Smith moved to Providence, where among his notable reporting projects he lived for a year in public housing to chronicle conditions there.

But it was in Baltimore where Smith made his biggest mark. After leaving The Sun in the mid-2000’s, Smith became a regular commentator on WYPR, wrote columns for The Daily Record, and eventually returned to column-writing at The Sun.

Smith’s book is a love letter to journalism — and to newspapers in particular.

“Every day’s paper was the result of extraordinary commitment, craftmanship and experience,” he wrote. “Nor did the paper flow from a single day’s work. Decades of thinking and re-thinking were behind every page. Each copy was the result of constant efforts to be better — to be perfect, actually. That was the goal…A state of the city or state or nation arrived at your home not once a year, but every single day: Problems to solve. Priorities to set. Life and death. Stability and change. Without fear or favor. Light for all.”

But the memoir also lamented the demise of the newspaper industry.

“Newspaper carcasses litter the landscape,” Smith wrote, “and members of society, I fear, have no clear understanding of what they are losing.”

While a full list of survivors wasn’t immediately available Monday night, Smith has five children: Jennifer, Alexandra, Jake, Anna and Emily. A memorial service will be scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

A personal note

When I arrived in Maryland to cover the 1996 General Assembly session for the now-defunct Gazette newspapers, Smith was one of an incalculable number of reporters crammed into the Baltimore Sun office in the State House basement that I admired and learned from. He always had a kind word for a young reporter, or a tip, or a wry observation about the cast of characters we were covering. Reading him was an education — not just for what he reported and wrote about, but because of the flawless copy he seemed to produce with very little effort.

More recently, Smith has been a big booster of Maryland Matters, becoming a regular donor, touting our work, and offering encouragement whenever we spoke. What a thrill; it always felt like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Rest in peace, Fraser.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.