John and Linda Smidt.

Honorable Menschion: John Smidt

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Honorable Menschion: John Smidt

John and Linda Smidt.

John Smidt has long been involved in community life, and has served on several boards, including as president of the JCC in Marblehead. He grew up in Marblehead and Swampscott, went to Boston University, and owned a family leather business in Peabody for decades. He has two daughters and two grandchildren, and has been married to Linda Smidt for 39 years.

What was it like to grow up in Swampscott and Marblehead in the ’40s and ’50s?

I grew up on Smith Street in Marblehead and my parents sent me to the Deveraux School across the street for my preschooling. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as I was kicked out after they accused me of stealing food off another’s plate (not so, he said he was done) and threatened to paddle me and wash my mouth out with soap unless I confessed. I ran home, never to return. Growing up in the ‘40s as a Jewish boy in Marblehead was not a problem for me. I hardly knew what that meant because there were only two of us in my elementary school. By the way, I was a Roads Scholar early on as I went to the Roads Elementary School.

I was somewhat of a loner back then. My dad owned a 23-foot sailboat with a 12-foot wooden dinghy that I would row around Marblehead harbor and stop at various yachts and schooners and ask permission to come aboard. My dad eventually bought a skiff with a 3-horsepower motor and I would tool around the harbor and explore.

We moved to Swampscott when I entered the seventh grade. My parents informed me when I was 11½ that I was going to have a bar mitzvah and had to go to Hebrew School at Temple Israel, where they belonged. My sister, five years older, never had a bat mitzvah, so I was shocked that my parents insisted. I never considered them as religious. I guess, like the Jewish holidays, some things are just traditional. It wasn’t until junior high that I noticed my Jewishness as many of my classmates were Jewish.

I picked up the cornet in junior high and must have shown promise because I was asked to march and play in the senior high school band. Both my mother and her twin brother played trumpets in their youth and my uncle eventually played professionally. Trumpets were not allowed at that time in the high school band, but a friend gave me his old trumpet. I played trumpet in the Case Tech marching band, and I continue to bang out a song on it today.

How did you first get involved in boating? We understand that you bought your first sailboat in 1964 at the age of 22.

John at the wheel of his boat.

My first boat was a 16-foot Bullseye sailboat. When I attended Boston University, I joined the sailing racing team and loved the competitive nature of the sport. Soon I was competing in Bullseye races in Marblehead. My second sailboat was a Contessa 26-footer that I had for three years before I bought Jade, my Tartan 34-footer. This boat I mostly used for cruising, but also did the Marion-Bermuda race in 1981 and single-handed with spinnaker in the Ryder Cup in Newport and in many Monhegan Sail Challenges from Provincetown to Tenants Harbor in Maine. My current boat is Chobe, a 38-foot Sabre sailboat.

Tell us how the Dolphin Yacht Club in Marblehead was formed and the important roles that both you and your dad played there.

Back in the mid-’50s it was difficult for a Jewish person to buy land on the water. My father and several other Jewish men purchased from a shell – Louis Athanas – the empty Marblehead Harbor Yacht Club that had just merged with the Boston Yacht Club. They formed a yacht club open to Jewish families and named it the Dolphin Yacht Club. My father was treasurer and later commodore and I also served as the youngest commodore in 1973 and later in 1981.

You have been involved in Peabody’s storied leather industry for many decades. Tell us about your professional life.

My grandfather Charles Smidt was president of the Workmens Circle in Peabody. He was a builder of commercial and residential buildings in Salem and Peabody and a sheepskin tanner. There is a Smidt Avenue in Peabody named after Charlie as he built all the homes on that street. My aunt went to a Yiddish school on Washington Street in Peabody. My father started the Phenny Smidt Leather Company in the late ’,30s’, which was a contract leather finishing business. In 1965, my dad became ill and asked me to “keep an eye on things” in the factory. I had no intention to go ‘into the business’ at that time. I had graduated from BU with a degree in international business and wanted to go into the container ship trade.

Ten years later I owned Phenny Smidt Leather and changed the name to John Smidt Co., Inc.

“Leather Soul,” a documentary of the history of the leather industry in Peabody, was partially filmed at my factory.

After the leather industry left Peabody, the city wanted to preserve its rich history by creating a museum called the Peabody Leatherworkers Museum. I was invited to serve on the advisory board to the museum and remain on the board to this day. Sixty percent of the items in the museum are from my factory: tools, textbooks, dry mill and other machinery.

I joined Congregation Sons of Israel, a traditional shul in Peabody, while I owned the factory, and am still a member there today.

You served as president of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore from 2012-2014 and played an integral role in the turnaround of that agency. What are you most proud of having accomplished during that time?

My wife Linda and I joined the JCCNS after Energy Works closed its doors. I was interested in how things were run so I sat in on various committee meetings. The president, Lisa Nagel, noticed my interest and asked if I wanted to join the board and eventually the executive committee. One late April executive committee meeting Lisa asked who wanted to be the next president in June as there was no succession at that time. Always up for a challenge, I raised my hand to the relief of many. I felt with my past business experience as president of my own company, a past board member of the Warren Five Bank, and as past commodore, I might be able to fill these challenging shoes. Luckily I had David Kasoff on my speed dial to help with the financials and hired Marty Schneer as our professional agency director. We were known as the three amigos and somehow we got the job done.

I am most proud during my tenure as president from 2012-2014 of two basic tenets I adopted early on in most things I took on:

1. My philosophy: ‘Failure is not an option.’

2. The slogan ‘Everyone is welcomed,’ which was printed on all our JCCNS brochures and advertising.

You have also been involved with our own Jewish Journal. What has been your motivation to offer your services, expertise, and resources to so many organizations?

My last gig was on the board of the Jewish Journal. Once again, I was interested in the workings of running a paper and if I could contribute with my business background. Never one to sit back and complain, if the paper was having challenges I wanted to be part of the solution.

This has been my motivation in most things I do, not to be part of the problem but to help find a solution. I was on our Glover Landing condominium board as president and as a governor for more than 20 years, and I always tried to look at things objectively and fairly.

Can you share a little about your family life and how you met your wife Linda?

Linda and I are about to celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary in April. We originally met on a boat and have been navigating through calm and rough seas ever since. Linda ran my front office at the factory for many years (left a good job to do so, she reminds me) and was not opposed to help run a machine if the need arose.

I have two exceptional daughters who live in Massachusetts and make us proud every day with their accomplishments and wise insights. We have two 8-year-old grand-twins, Eli and Ellie, and it will be a joy to watch their journeys in becoming young adults.

We understand that you have recently begun a new chapter with Linda in Florida, and return north to your beloved Rangeley, Maine, during the summer. How’s it going so far and what do you miss from Marblehead?

We moved to southwest Florida in November and are enjoying the warmth and easy living. We do not miss the snow but sorely miss our friends up north and hope they will travel our way for a visit. Finding no backgammon club at the civic association we belong to, I started one as I like to make things happen. We have also joined a cruising boat club at the same association. Our plan is to stay in Florida from October to June and then go to our camp in the mountains of northern Maine for the summer. We plan to drive down to Marblehead from time to time to go sailing and visit our friends.

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