The yard doesn't seem eerie or even bittersweet. Although it's much quieter than it ever could have been when the gleeful, garrulous Smith was living, Smith's hand-cobbled trailer and outbuildings, his ingenious lawn decorations, even the junk collector's scrappily ornamented blue Chevy pickup feel as lively as always. It is easy to imagine Smith just out of sight, in one of his shanties digging for half-remembered trinkets -- like the taillights of a '57 Ford -- to light up the eyes of the latest addition to his robot family.
By all accounts, Smith, 77, was fairly healthy and spry until he died suddenly on May 30 from an apparent heart attack. Smith's many flights of fancy became the astonishing realities of his life, all fueled by unfanciful hitched rides, ketchup-based "tomato soup," and his daily 10 cups of coffee. By the time he celebrated his 75th birthday, Smith could -- and did! -- describe himself with all these titles and more: world-champion hitchhiker (he was in the Guinness book), good-will ambassador, space traveler, professional recycler and, in a late-life twist that impressed even him, artist.
Smith was born to Betty and Mulford Smith, who moved seven times during Smith's childhood and then divorced during the Great Depression. He dropped out of high school and went to work at the Union Steel Castings mill in Pittsburgh before he was drafted into World War II.
After the war, Smith headed for Southern California where he worked seasonally on a General Motors assembly line and traveled by thumb the rest of the time, accumulating souvenir patches and pins on his trademark red jacket. In 1957, Smith "turned professional," giving each trip a publicity-worthy theme like "World's First Interplanetary Journey on Earth" to places like Earth, Texas, and Jupiter, Fla.
He eventually racked up 200,000 miles, traveling 41 times across the U.S., across Europe to Siberia, and all through South America. As the "World's Slowest Post Office," he hand-delivered letters between cities with similar names: Paris, Texas, and Paris, France; Moscow, Idaho, and Moscow, Russia, and many others. The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times noted his adventures, as did Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter by hosting him on their shows. He also involved tens of thousands of ordinary people, gathering signatures for his World's Longest Birthday Cards to the Constitution of the United States, to Bob Hope and others.
In the 1970s, he returned home to rural Pennsylvania and scraped by hauling scrap. In the early 1980s, he celebrated Pennsylvania's tercentennial with his first robot sculpture, Jupiter. He soon completed a robot family, Venus, Sun and Sis-Star, with their dog Pluto ("You know, we're talking robots -- they've got to have space names!"), bragging that the group cost him only $39.50. Fifteen years later, Smith's robots were "discovered" by Baltimore's American Museum of Visionary Art. At AVAM's We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens show, he married off Sun and Sis-Star to new robots. Later, the robots appeared at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum (where they're currently housed). He's been compared to Georgia preacher and self-taught artist Howard Finster for his outgoing personality and the self-created "environment" around his home, which was filled with clever, offhand art.
If Smith was an iconoclast, he was one of the most sociable ones imaginable. As he loved to say: "Without almost anything man can get by, but without friends he will not even try!" A conversation with Smith would always be hugely entertaining, and always at least two hours long. It once took him over three hours to eat an order of fries, so reluctant he was to pause his monologue. While talking, he would wave his arms in the air, and his already-transparent eyebrows would fly up like window shades and vanish beneath his homemade promo caps.
Though Smith didn't leave a will, his siblings Alice Kummer and Sam Shurlock are eager to preserve Smith's robot mlange and his other spacey sculptures, as well as his vast paper memorabilia.
His accomplishments have a gee-whiz quality, but Smith's work also intuitively tapped something more significant: the main vein of popular American culture, especially in its 1940s-1960s "golden age." After compulsively documenting 30 years of adventures in post-war Americana, Smith spent his last two decades ingeniously -- and lovingly -- salvaging this culture's flaw, its prefab homogeneity, by recycling its artifacts back to us in ever more imaginative ways.
"I made my life interesting," Smith said in a 2001 City Paper interview. "It didn't just happen. Who'd think you could get in to the mayor of Moscow? Some of the things I did are impossible. But I did 'em."
"DeVon Inspiration," May 30, 2001, Archived story about DeVon Smith