Smathers remembered for changes

Carolyn Hyder Smathers, right, and her family sing during a funeral service for her husband, former U.S. Sen. George A. Smathers, at The Church By the Sea on Monday in Bal Harbour. Smathers, 93, died Jan. 20.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 12:01 a.m.
BAL HARBOUR - The sanctuary was dim, the flag's colors vivid and the speakers' words precise. They read the words of the Bible, poets and the brokenhearted as they described former U.S. Sen. George Smathers.
''Some people make the world more special just by being in it,'' the Rev. David Rees, pastor of Church by the Sea, said Monday. In his 93 years, Smathers endured many labels - father and husband, statesman and scholar, racist and mudslinger. In the end, though, his life was summed up in a subdued hour-long service as his body lay in a flag-draped wooden casket.
Smathers served two terms as a Democratic congressman and three as a senator. He died Jan. 20, several days after suffering a stroke.
About 300 people paid tribute to Smathers at the United Church of Christ congregation he often attended. Besides the celebrant, Sen. Bill Nelson was the only one to step behind the pulpit and speak.
Nelson was a college intern for Smathers and now occupies his desk in the Senate chamber. He outlined his predecessor's career - as a close friend of John F. Kennedy, an expert on Latin America and a man whose work is evident across the state, from the Everglades (which he worked to designate a national park) to the Kennedy Space Center (for which he helped secure funding).
''Sen. Smathers, thank you on behalf of a grateful nation,'' the Democrat said.
Nelson called attention to Smathers' votes in support of two civil rights bills, but failed to mention the senator worked to water down the legislation and voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an attempt to appease segregationist white voters.
Those actions led some to label Smathers a racist, though those who knew him claimed he simply was trying to keep his job. Rees used a popular line of the civil rights struggle in mentioning the hardships of Smathers' final years.
''If we listen carefully,'' the pastor said, ''we can hear him singing the words of the old spiritual, ''Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last.''

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