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Published: Friday, 2/21/2014

Rod Smith; 1944-2014: Assembler found his calling as union voice

Smith Smith

TEMPERANCE — Rod Smith, a longtime United Auto Workers staff member, with Local 12 and then the international union, who closed his career overseeing veterans’ affairs from Solidarity House, died Friday in the Cleveland Clinic. He was 69.

He suffered kidney failure and other health problems that were complications of anti-rejection medication he took after a liver transplant seven years ago, his daughter Kelly said. He was in the hospital much of the last nine months. After his son, Robert, died Nov. 10, Mr. Smith said that “he could either let it make him worse [or] he could take this and fight and try to live and get better,” his daughter recalled. “He stayed very strong, and he really wanted to live.”

Mr. Smith closed his career by working from UAW headquarters, commuting to Solidarity House in Detroit. For a time, he helped members claim strike benefits. He retired in 2000 from the veterans department, and it was among his favorite assignments, his daughter said.

“He was so good at helping the UAW veterans,” she said. “After he retired, people called him all the way up until he was in the hospital, asking his advice. He loved it.”

He became a UAW member in 1964 as an assembler at a plant in his native Muncie, Ind. He became a member of Local 12 in 1969 as an assembler at Champion Spark Plug in Toledo. Union leaders noted early on that he was skilled at his job and willing to help co-workers, his daughter Kimmy said. The leaders urged him to get involved, and he became a steward, was elected to the executive committee and, eventually, as vice chairman of the Local 12 Champion unit.

By 1976, he was a Local 12 staff member and worked with the units that together make up the local. He became an international representative of UAW Region 2B three years later. He frequently was cited in newspaper accounts of negotiations, providing the UAW’s side of stalemates and settlements.

“This is where he found his calling, and he genuinely cared,” his daughter Kelly said. When at the bargaining table, facing management, “he was a tough, no-holds-barred person,” she said. “He would not accept anything but what was the best outcome. He was tenacious.

“He had a caring heart for the people — as they say in the union, ‘the brothers and sisters’ — and took that seriously,” she said.

Rodney Nelson Smith was born June 27, 1944, the son of Wanda and Clayton “CJ” Smith. He was a 1963 graduate of Burris Laboratory High School in Muncie. He attended Ball State University and the University of Maryland.

He was a sergeant in the Air Force, serving from 1964-68. On Okinawa, he was part of an aerial refueling support group, and in Oklahoma, he was a technical school instructor.

Surviving are his wife, Sherry, whom he married Jan. 20, 1968; daughters, Kelly Schenavar and Kimberly “Kimmy” Smith, and two grandchildren.

Visitation will be 3-9 p.m. today in the Pawlak Funeral Home, Temperance, where services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday. The family suggests tributes to the American Legion.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.

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