Remembering Jim Smith, West Berkeley community activist

Jim Smith, 81, also worked as a mail handler and served as vice president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association.

Jim Smith. Courtesy: Andy Kelly

May 1, 1939 – Nov. 10, 2020

James “Jim” Washington Smith died at his Berkeley residence on the evening of Nov. 10, 2020, at the age of 81, after a prolonged battle with multiple myeloma.

Jim was best known for his community organizing work in addressing drugs and crime in the Rosa Parks neighborhood of West Berkeley during the 1980s and ’90s. As a community activist, he was engaged in innumerable civic and political issues, organizing, crime-fighting, and meeting and working with hundreds of people. He was a frequent attendee of Berkeley City Council meetings. In honor of his outstanding service to the community, former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean declared “Jim Smith Day,” awarding him with the Key to the City. He consulted for many local politicians, both incumbent and aspiring, and campaigned for U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein in California and Hillary Clinton in her bids for national office. Jim had a dream of Berkeley being the model city for our nation, an idea he titled, Twenty-first Century Berkeley.

Jim was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1939, to Garland and Sarah “Mabel” Purce Smith. They lived in nearby Marshall, Virginia, but later relocated to southeast D.C. when he was just 4 years old.

As a young man, Jim spent three years attending Howard University where he studied chemistry. While in school, he worked as a driftwood furniture craftsman in Georgetown.  Amid his studies, he was drafted into the Vietnam War, where he became a hospital laboratory technician at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was enlisted for two years, where he attained the rank of sergeant.

Soon after returning from the army, Jim met his future wife, Mary (Kaltenbach), when they both worked at the main post office of Washington, D.C., (now the National Postal Museum) in the winter of 1967-68.  They both moved to Berkeley in 1970, and later married in Reno, Nevada, on Feb. 26, 1974.

Jim worked as a mail handler at the Alameda Post Office from 1970 to 1993. During this time, Jim and his wife made investments in real estate, including the purchase of their home in Northwest Berkeley and various small, rental properties throughout Berkeley and Oakland. Jim would later be elected to serve terms as vice president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association and president of the Black Property Owners Association, where he administered advice and guidance to countless Berkeley property owners. In his later years, he hosted numerous international students at his apartments on Eighth Street, helping them get settled into their new life in Berkeley.

Jim was an avid volunteer, helping organizations such as Berkeley Youth Alternatives, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the Rosa Parks Elementary after-school programs with their efforts in supporting at-risk youth. He also served as a former director for the Ala-Costa Center for the Developmentally Disabled Youth and was a former president of the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee. When Jim wasn’t out actively changing the world, he enjoyed train rides, music, dancing, science, debate, news, politics and East Asian art and culture.  He often enjoyed a great conversation over beers at the Albatross Pub.

Jim was a man of faith who committed his life to seeking the greater good in all situations. His kindness and gentleness will continue to inspire many.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Mary, of Berkeley; stepdaughter, Erika Gies, and her husband of Richmond; stepson, William E. Gies, and his wife of Berkeley; and two step-grandchildren, Bill R. T. Gies of Oakland and Eliana Gies of Berkeley.

Due to coronavirus, there is no funeral planned to occur in the Berkeley area.  A small family gathering will occur next year in Marshall, Virginia, at the home he was born.