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Neal Smith, Iowa’s longest-serving U.S. House member, dies at 101
DES MOINES — Neal Smith, who grew up in a tiny southeast Iowa town and served as a World War II bomber pilot before becoming a successful lawyer and then the state’s longest-serving U.S. House member, has died. He was 101.
Smith died Tuesday, according to Jerry Anderson, dean of the Drake University Law School, who was notified by the Smith family.
During his 36 years in Congress, Smith, a Democrat, was known as a quiet but effective leader whose greatest accomplishments revolved around the approval of federal funding for dams and reservoirs that safeguarded cities from flooding and created lakes for recreation. Smith said the creation of Lake Red Rock, Saylorville Lake and Rathbun Lake changed the way people viewed the Des Moines River Valley, transforming it into a “big asset instead of a liability” and promoting development in places like downtown Des Moines.
“It used to be on weekends you didn’t have a place to go unless you were wealthy enough have a place up in the northern Great Lakes,” Smith said in a May 2015 interview on Iowa Public Radio. “Most people didn’t have place to go to especially to be in nature.”
Neal Edward Smith was born March 23, 1920, in Hedrick in a home owned by his grandparents on land settled by his great-grandfather in 1850. In the public radio interview, Smith recalled his family was poor during the Great Depression but that they always had food from their farm. He also recalled the joy of spending time outdoors, watching wildlife and riding a pony with children who lived nearby.
As a bomber with the Army Air Forces during World War II, he was shot down. He received a Purple Heart and other medals but felt uncomfortable discussing his wartime experience.
“Well, I tell you, I don’t ever talk about it. I was in the Pacific. I came back and many of my friends did not come back and they’re just forgotten about,” he said.
After the war, he attended the University of Missouri and Syracuse University before getting his law degree from Drake University in Des Moines in 1950. He farmed, worked as a lawyer, and served as an assistant county attorney in Polk County before he was elected to Congress.
Smith said he was inspired to enter politics during President Harry Truman’s campaign in 1948. With Truman expected to lose, Smith went to the state Democratic headquarters and asked how he could help. He was told to start a young Democrats club at Drake, which he did.
He also recalled that during the Great Depression, politicians managed to give people hope.
“It just seemed like people who were there working in the government were trying to help improve the situation, and it made one think that government service was a good thing to do,” Smith said in the Iowa Public Radio interview.
He was first elected in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration and remained until 1995, when Republicans took control of the House during Bill Clinton's presidency. Smith’s loss to Republican Greg Ganske was due in part to redistricting, which transformed his compact Des Moines-centered district into a more conservative area stretching to the state’s western border.
Many central Iowa landmarks bear his name, including the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, the paved Neal Smith Trail, the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines and the Neal and Bea Smith Law Center at Drake University.
Smith married Beatrix Havens in 1946, and she became one of the few female lawyers in Des Moines before joining him in Washington.
Michael Gartner, owner of the Iowa Cubs minor league baseball team and former editor of the Des Moines Register, said he got to know Smith well while at the paper.
“I once wrote that Iowa has everything God and Neal Smith could provide,” said Gartner. “He was just an honest guy. He had a little bit of that farmer reluctance in him. When he talked, you paid attention. He always had good ideas and he always knew how to get stuff done.”
In a 2020 Des Moines Register interview to celebrate his 100th birthday, Smith attributed his longevity to abstaining from alcohol, coffee, tea and cigarettes, calling them unnecessary stimulants.
Smith’s wife died in 2016. He is survived by two children, Doug Smith of Florida and Sharon VanderSchel of Iowa.