George J. “Skip” Smith, 1929-2013: Bartender got his start at Hillcrest Hotel in city

George J. Smith, Jr.
George J. Smith, Jr.

George J. “Skip” Smith, whose good cheer and skill in mixing cocktails during a 37-year bartending career brought customers back for more, died Monday in Kingston of Sylvania. He was 83.

His health declined after his wife, Irene, died 15 months ago.

“He died of a broken heart, he really did,” his daughter Christine Frugh said. Mr. Smith, formerly of West Toledo, moved to Kingston about four years ago. His wife later joined him.

Mr. Smith didn’t say how he came to bartending, but “that was his profession,” daughter Christine said. “He was very well-known.”

He spent the first 17 years of his mixology career at the Hillcrest Hotel. Liberace was among the near-downtown hotel’s famous guests during Mr. Smith’s tenure. He was at John Krotzer’s Steaks on Monroe Street for 20 years, retiring when the restaurant closed in 1996.

“He was a character,” daughter Christine said. “He was very personable and loved to be around people. He was a quick wit, smiling and making jokes, always making you feel welcome.

“He brought ’em in. He kept business going,” she said “You’d go back to see him and sit and chat with him.”

His daughter Georgean Koka added: “He was a happy kind of person, uplifting.”

He could field nearly any request.

“My dad made the best grasshoppers and margaritas,” daughter Christine said, “and not too many people can make a good old-fashioned grasshopper.”

For five years after retirement, he was a salesman at Standard Loan, the downtown pawn shop owned by daughter Georgean and son-in-law Nicholas Koka. “He was the life of the store,” Georgean said.

He was born Oct. 20, 1929, to Bertha and George Smith and grew up in North Toledo. He attended Woodward High School. He was 17 and in the Army, on his way to New York City to be shipped out to Europe, when on Feb. 18, 1947, his train, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Red Arrow, plunged over an embankment near Altoona, Pa. The initial death toll was 25. More than 100 others were injured. Mr. Smith suffered a shattered leg.

He rarely brought up the crash. Recently he said that he had switched from his window seat at the request of the man next to him, who wanted to rest his head against the window. Not long after, the train left the rails. The man was killed.

“To the day he died, he thought about that,” his daughter Christine said.

He was 8 when he became a pinsetter at Mercury Lanes on Stickney Avenue. As an adult, he bowled in leagues for decades.

Mr. Smith and his wife married Sept. 4, 1950. She died Oct. 20, 2011.

Surviving are his daughters, Georgean Koka, Christine Frugh, and Suzanne Jablonski; seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be 2-8 p.m. Friday in the Sujkowski Funeral Home Northpointe, with a Scripture service at 7 p.m. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday in Regina Coeli Church, of which he was a charter member.

The family suggests tributes to Hospice of Northwest Ohio.