Brother Smith began his postal and union career in the early 1960s. In 1964, he was elected president of the Dayton (OH) Local of the National Association of Post Office Mail Handlers (NAPOMH), before becoming president of its state organization in 1965. He was elected state president of the National Postal Union (NPU) in 1969 - an industrial union that included all postal crafts, including mail handlers. After the merger that created the APWU in 1971, Brother Smith was appointed as national vice president of the APWU’s Mail Handler Craft (the Mail Handler Division continued for decades in the APWU).
In 1981, Brother Smith returned to Dayton, and served as the president of Dayton Ohio Area Local for 11 years until his appointment as Retirees Director upon the creation of the department in 1993.
“This has been the most rewarding work,” Smith said when he retired as Retirees Director in 2005. “Helping people to make the most important decisions they have to make in their entire lives ... not only in deciding when to retire, but in helping them make the decisions they will have to make once they have retired.”
“I’m extremely proud of what the Retirees Department has become,” Smith said in his farewell. “When we look at other unions, we’re doing very well in membership numbers. And the contributions our retirees make to the APWU are outstanding. It’s been a great ride.”
Brother Smith’s contributions to labor and civil rights went far beyond just his APWU career. In April 1994, he traveled to South Africa with six other APWU officers as part of an 89-member AFL-CIO delegation to observe the first free and fair election in the country. The delegation observed the polls in the three-day election that resulted in Nelson Mandela winning the Presidency.
“John R. Smith was a man of God with a voice of authority who made a positive difference in so many lives. He believed in family first and was a friend, mentor, advisor counselor, and consultant to many,” said Legislative & Political Director Judy Beard, who joined Smith in the delegation to South Africa in 1994. “When he retired from his position as National Retiree Director, he left me with these words of wisdom: ‘stay in the fight for social justice for we have the power to create a better world.’ John’s union and civil rights work spanned his entire adult life and we will continue to uphold his legacy.”
Brother Smith also cared deeply about his community of Dayton, serving on the city’s Housing Authority Board, Catholic Elementary School Board, Little League Board, and the United Way at Work Committee. He was a Deacon at Corinthian Baptist Church and taught Sunday school.
“To me, JR was a trailblazer. At the time in your life when most people are looking forward to slowing down, JR spent over ten years building the APWU Retirees Department into a resource that would provide life changing information to APWU members and their families,” said Retirees Director Nancy Olumekor. “He encouraged retirees to stay involved in the union by organizing into chapters, to continue to help ourselves, our union and others. JR took risks and succeeded – the Retirees Department is his legacy.”
“On behalf of our entire membership, I offer deep condolences to his family,” President Dimondstein said, “and great appreciation for John R. Smith’s tremendous contributions to the well being of postal and all workers.”
Brother Smith was married for 62 years to Mrs. Ida B. Smith, who passed in Sept. 2014. He is survived by his three adult children – Darryl Smith, Cheryl Brown, and Mark Smith – their spouses, numerous grandchildren, relatives and friends.