Barbara Lawlor, Nederland. When Ray Willis and Mark Smith were toddlers growing up in Nederland, they would play together in a sand box, making their Tonka Toy trucks move piles from one place to another. They made the sound of changing gears as they pushed the classic, metal heavy equipment replicas.
Later, when the two boys were in high school, they would leave early in the morning, carrying their 22’s and head up beyond Eldora, to Lost Lake, to spend the day. As long as they showed up for dinner, they were okay.
Both boys became men who made their homes in Nederland. They were both driving trucks before they were anywhere near getting their driver’s licenses.
In 1974, when Mark was 17, almost 18, three days after graduating from Nederland High School, he went to work for Boulder County. He had found a bigger sandbox and bigger Tonka Toys and he was happy.
Last Sunday, June 19, 2016 co-workers, friends and families gathered at Mark and Ressa’s home on Magnolia to congratulate Mark on his retirement, after 42 years of making sure the Boulder County roads were accessible and safe.
Putting the word retirement and Mark Smith in the same sentence is an oxymoron. He doesn’t know how to not work. His mother Jeanette Smith says that from the day he was born, he would greet the day at 5:30 a.m., with a big grin on his face and kicking as if to say, “C’mon, let’s get going, let’s do something.”
Not only did he work for the county, but he also started his own business, the Antique Excavation Co., and bought an old Allis Chalmers, a grader and a dump truck, for jobs assisting his Nederland neighbors with their projects. It wasn’t long before Mark was the superintendent of the county mountain road crew. When he got through with work, he went to work.
In the mountain area, he was the guy people would call when something was wrong with their road, with drainage issues, with their eroded driveways, with four feet of snow on the ground. Mark had the equipment and the expertise to do whatever needed to be done, even though it was sometimes 3 a.m. when the call came in.
And there were the emergencies, the disasters. People don’t often realize that the unsung heroes of a natural disaster are the heavy equipment operators.
When the Black Tiger fire exploded, raging into the Sugar Loaf residential area, taking home after home, Mark was sent to the west edge with his D-7 Dozer to do structure defense by digging lines around houses to save them from being eaten by the wind driven flames.
Jim Smith, Mark’s brother, was also working that area and he describes Mark perched on his dozer on the western flank and looking over the edge, saying, “Yup, it’s pretty steep down there.”
“And then, he dropped off over the edge, kind of skied back and forth over the rocks down to Green Canyon. He had to get back up to take a second run and he had his blade and grippers down, but the dozer went screaming down the hill. When it finally got hung up on his blade, we got him off.
“When Flash, Mark Friedman, who was the dozer boss at the time, came to the spot where Mark had gone off, he said, “No one in their right mind would ever go down there.”
When the flames died down, it was the dozer crew who had saved many of the Sugarloaf homes.
One Sugarloaf resident said, “If it weren’t for Mark, we wouldn’t still be here today.” Jeanette, hearing the story, said it was a miracle that she ever made it to 60 years old.” Mark’s sister Diane remembers him as being the brother who could always calm her down, with his mellow smile and easy going way of dealing with problems.
“When I was 14 and totally frustrated with mom, the way teenagers are, Mark looked at me and said, ‘C’mon, let’s go for a ride.’ We went in his pickup truck, driving past the high school and then he turned to me and said, ‘Here, you drive for a while,’ handing me the steering wheel, which he had taken off the steering column. All my frustrations flew out the window. It was Mark’s way of saying, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’”
On Sunday, Mark’s coworkers congratulated him on his retirement and Chuck Goodnow, who has applied to take over Mark’s position, although it is not official yet, presented him with a gift from the county, a custom-made .22, Henry’s Golden Boy Repeating Rifle, known to be a masterpiece of fine crafted gunsmithing. It is known as “The rifle that brings out the west in you.”
On the stock of the gun there is an engraving with the Boulder County emblem and the words, “To Mark Smith, from June, 1974 to June, 2016.”
When Mark hefted the gun, Chuck said, “It looks so much smaller when you hold it.”
Mark grinned like a schoolboy about to head into the woods with his friend Ray Willis. “Now I can shoot all those small critters that keep eating my garden.”
A Twin Sisters resident said that over the years, Mark has worked with the residents who live along the dirt road and “Each year, taking it a step at a time, the road has gotten better and better. Mark was very thoughtful in his whole approach to solving the problems.”
Timberline Fire Protection District firefighter John Carder who lives on Porter Ranch said that when he first moved in the residents were reluctant to do what he wanted done on the road, but when Mark was called, he came and listened, and when he understood the reasons for the suggestions, he did the work, and it worked. It takes a lot more than machinery and muscle to correct erosion and drainage problems.
After the 2013 flood, Mark was among the team of excavators that dug out Jamestown and Lyons and carved access roads to places buried in debris or cut off from county roads.
On Tuesday, the county held a retirement party at the county shop and Thursday was Mark’s last day of getting up early to deal with ongoing road issues in the mountain communities.
When asked how he felt about retiring, he said, “I don’t know. Talk to me in a week and I’ll tell you how it’s going.”
The Smiths plan to travel. Mark will continue his Antique Excavating business and expects that the 3 a.m. calls will keep on coming.