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Fanfare to a common man

Local woman travels to Minnesota to pay last respects to a lonely man

The Herald Journal - Logan, Utah - Wednesday, December 6, 2003     |   Related Story: Man who placed ad to cure loneliness

  Wanted: One Family
Book & Song
Wanted: One Family by Deanna Edwards - 1997

Today, over 1,000 miles from Cache County in a little town in Minnesota, a funeral is being held for Joe Smarzik. Tears will undoubtedly be shed, songs will be played to soothe the pain of losing him.

But his life, and even the funeral, will be more like a fanfare for a common man whose single uncommon act transformed his life from a solitary existence into a life surrounded by loving strangers.

So when Logan resident Deanna Edwards attends the funeral in Walnut Grove today she will pack the church along with friends and family of a man she believes was once destined to die a hermit.

Edwards became the biographer of Smarzik, a Minnesota farmer who was so driven to despair by loneliness that he threw off his normally crusty exterior to reach out to some family - any family - in 1977. The clasified advertisement that he put in the weekly Headlight-Herald in nearby Tracy, Minn., was almost as out-of-place and lonesome as the man who wrote it. Next to the ads that told about every imaginable product for sale, his ad read: "WANTED: ONE FAMILY TO EAT WITH. I WILL FURNISH THE TURKEY."

That one little ad in the weekly paper inspired television interviews and newspaper articles, and inspired Edwards, a popular Utah singer and author, to tell Smarzik's story in a book. In the 26 years since that simple ad, Smarzik, who died on Thanksgiving at the age of 98, aquired friends from all over the world, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan, as well as being reunited with his estranged family.

"The want ad is a little thing. The story is bigger than all of us. Joe is just a symbol - for all of us. The homeless and the lonely," said Edwards in an interview at her Logan home this week.

In her book "Wanted: One Family," Edwards recounted Smarzik's rise from neighborhood hermit to beloved community member.

In 1977, Smarzik was a lonely man, divorced from his wife and estranged from his children. He didn't even know he had grandchildren. Smarzik had the type of stoicism which had been born of hard working Polish immigrants and chiseled into him by the icy winds of the Minnesota prairies.

"For almost 30 years he had eaten a simple supper and retreated into his rocking chair, staring at a television screen he rarely turned on. There was always too much time to think about the past," Edwards writes. "He couldn't face another Christmas alone."

Edwards said that his want ad drew three responses - two from families who were offering to bring Christmas dinner to him, but that's not what he wanted. He wanted to share Christmas.

The other offer came from the Rev. Homer Dobson, the local Church of Christ pastor, who opened his home to Smarzik. He accepted the invitation.

Smarzik drove to Dobson's home. He kept on driving around the block so many times, contemplating - probably in broken Polish - whether to go inside. But the stillness of his house was too much to go back to . He mustered the courage and entered Dobson's home. There he found a house decorated with angels and a golden turkey on the table with all the trimmings.

"He was just overwhelmed," Edwards said, "He hadn't been around elegance in a long time, but it was just like he remembered."

Indeed. Nothing about Smarzik was elegant. He hated to do his own laundry, so he just bought new shirts - throwing the barely used but dirty ones in the garage. He hated to take baths. And it was obvious he hated to be alone.

From that time on, Smarzik always had a place to eat Christmas dinner. But his life was destined to change even more dramatically. When Edwards was passing through Tracy giving a workshop a few years after the ad ran, Dobson showed her the classified Smarzik ran in the paper. Edwards became so overwhelmed herself that she wrote a song, "Wanted: One Family," and frequently shared the song and Smarzik's story with church audiences and others.

When Smarzik heard the song, the "crusty guy who looked like one of Santa's elves," he cried.

"He said, 'The reason I put that ad in is because no one pays attention to old people anymore,'" Edwards recalled. " And I realized his story had a universal message."

After Edwards' song, Smarzik started doing more radio and televesion interviews. News of his simple ad brought responses from around the nation - so many that they had to be hauled in buckets.

Several letters were from families in the western U.S. When he would travel to visit Edwards, who lived in Provo until last year, he would often stop and visit those families. One letter was from the Anderson family in Rock Springs, Wyo.

He forged a relationship with them that lasted until his death. He would often climb in his pickup and drive cross-country, joining the Anderson family at their home. Edwards said that he would just sit in a recliner when he visited friends, happy to be around a family, saying few words.

"When people feel loved, they'll go to great lengths," Edwards said.

But the families he discovered were not the families he longed for. His wife had left him hree decades before, and took with her his three children. All attempts to contact them had been rebuffed.

However, it was after one of Smarzik's trips across the West to see his surrogate families that he was reunited with his own.

The trip back to Minnesota one year had been particularly harrowing. Missing turnoffs and road signs, he quickly found himself in Idaho, when he should have been in Wyoming. Getting back home on unfamiliar highways sucked the energy out of him. Within a few days after arriving home, he was at an auction (one of his pasttimes) when he knew something was wrong with his heart. Getting in his pickup, he drove himself to the hospital and collapsed on the emergency room floor.

As he lay unconscious the medical staff at the hospital looked for any information about relatives. A crumpled piece of paper in his wallet had the name and phone number on one of his daughters. Staff called the number, and his daughter, who had not spoken with him since early childhood, made the five-hour journey back to Tracy.

It was while Smarzik was lying helpless in bed that she decided to abandon the fued and re-establish a relationship with her father.

That was the beginning of Smarzik being re-united with his own family.

Though he had to learn the names of his grandchildren (they were told that he was dead), and had missed out on important milestones, it was obvious that even time couldn't stunt the intensity of his love for his family.

Edwards recalled an incident just a few years ago as Smarzik's health was failing, and they were talking about family. At that point it occurred to Smarzik that he would never see his daughter, who was serving a humanitarian mission to Africa, again.

He excused himself from the pinochle game he was playing with Edwards and members of the Anderson family.

"He went into his room and for 20 minutes the sobs that emanated from that room, I have never heard anything like it. They were so primal. I've just never heard that kind of anguish," Edwards said. "She doesn't know how much her father loved her. I can't wait to tell her that story (today)."

The changes in Smarzik's life weren't only behind closed doors. They were also visible on the exterior. For years, the only picture that graced the walls of the spartan Smarzik house was Enstrom's famous painting called "Grace." It depicts a white-bearded man praying over a loaf of bread while a Bible and reading glasses are pushed aside.

Smarzik, the lapsed Catholic, explained the significance of the picture to Edwards.

"'I used to let the guy in the picture pray for me because I had nothing to pray about, 'he would tell me, "Edwards recounted.

After his family returned, Edwards said Smarzik started blessing the food at the table.

Understand - the kind of thing you'd expect from a former Minnesota ice man. Understand - like the way Edwards knew Smarzik loved her.

"I once said to him, 'Joe, I love you.' and he said, 'Thank you,'" Edwards remembered. "Then I said, 'You're supposed to say, 'I love you back.' And he said, 'of course,' and then he got in his car and drove off. He was mad that I made him say it."

Now that's understatement. And that's why Edwards can't forget one of the last conversations she had with Smarzik.

"Joe, I love you," Edwards said.

"Thank you." he replied

You're supposed to say, 'I love you,'" Edwards prompted.

Thank you very much," Smarzik said.

So tonight Edwards will be dining at the Red Rooster, a restaurant that Smarzik founded. A long time ago, he paid for his headstone. He paid for his funeral. And he paid for a funeral celebration at the Red Rooster. It would be foolish to think Edwards isn't going to cry, or won't miss him, even though the grief counselor knew the end was near two weeks ago when he was taken to the hospital.

She'll sing some songs. She'll share stories. Most of all, though, she'll probably say thank you.

No, thank you very much.

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