Gertrude Rosalie Smith

“My Frank”: Gert Smith and her husband, Frank, were married for 50 years.

VOORHEESVILLE — Gert Smith was “like a mother,” say many people who worked for her at the iconic Smith’s Tavern in Voorheesville. She cared for her employees like family and many emulated her strong work ethic.

She died at her Boynton Beach, Fla. home under hospice care on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. She was 89.

Gertrude Rosalie Smith née Sprenzel was born in Oberdorf, Germany on Nov. 4, 1928, to Michael and Rosalie Sprenzel, the youngest of four.

She came to the United States in the early 1950s.

Mrs. Smith was working at a foundry when she met Frank L. Smith Jr.  — or “My Frank,” as he would come to be known to anyone who’d had a conversation with Mrs. Smith — at his parents’ restaurant, Smith’s Tavern, Mrs. Smith told The Enterprise in October 2016. “He made a date with me,” she had said.  

At that time, the restaurant was run by Frank Smith Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth, known as Lil.

Frank Smith Sr. took a liking to Mrs Smith. He told his son, “I want you to marry this girl; she’s a worker,” Mrs. Smith would tell The Enterprise in 2016.

The couple married on June 17, 1956, their union ending only with Mr. Smith’s death on Aug. 14, 2006, having celebrated their 50th anniversary in June of that year. The couple had no children.

For 35 years Mr. and Mrs. Smith owned and operated Smith’s Tavern, having bought it from Lil Smith in 1959.

Mrs. Smith told The Enterprise in 2016 that Smitty’s had been her home. “It was home for everyone,” she had said.

“All of us were her children,” said Jennifer Hawkins, who had worked at Smitty’s.

Over decades, Mrs. Smith would imbue a work ethic into “her children” that could not be forgotten. Audrey Pafunda, a former waitress, said that once Mrs. Smith was finished scrubbing down the kitchen, she would grab a ladder and get started on the ceiling.

“I learned my work ethic from her,” Ms. Hawkins said. “If she saw you were idle, she would come up with a task for you.”

Ms. Hawkins was 14 in 1985 when she began working for Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith would sneak her in the back door to wash dishes, Ms. Hawkins said. She would work for Mrs. Smith until she was 24.

Ms. Hawkins would eventually become a civil engineer at the New York State Department of Transportation, and she attributes part of her success to what she learned from Mrs. Smith — taking pride in hard work.

And Mrs. Smith’s employees helped her as well.

 

— Photo Courtesy of Jon McClelland
A family photo for Christmas: A picture from the 
mid 
1980s of employees from Smith’s Tavern. Gert Smith would call her employees her family. 

 

 

 

 

 

Maye Duncan — who was the first employee at Smitty’s who wasn’t a Smith, but was definitely family — said that, both she and Mrs. Smith were smokers, and decided to try and kick the habit. To help Mrs. Smith quit, Mrs. Duncan would hide her cigarettes. “It worked; she quit,” Mrs. Duncan said.

Kathy Fairbank worked mostly for the subsequent owners of Smitty’s, but said that she still thought of herself as a “Frank and Gert girl.” Eventually, both of Ms. Fairbank’s sons would work at the tavern as well.

Mrs. Smith cared especially about the futures of her young employees, Ms. Fairbank said. If they had been working during the week and had homework, Mrs. Smith made it clear when the tavern wasn’t busy, homework was to be done.

“They were very fair, comfortable, giving, and loving people — and I miss them terribly,” said Ms. Fairbank.

In 1991, the Smiths sold their business to Jon McClelland and John Mellen, and moved to Florida. The restaurant was sold last year to Stewart’s Shops.

Mrs. Smith was active in retirement, walking every day for an hour until Christmas Eve 2017, when she slipped at home, said Jon Stober, a neighbor of Mrs. Smith’s in Florida who would become her caretaker toward the end of her life.

Mr. Stober said that his friendship with Mrs. Smith began with a smile.

“She was the lady at the end of the street, always smiling,” Mr. Stober said.

A smile led to hello, which led to a conversation, which led to a beer. “Everybody likes beer,” Mrs. Smith had said to Mr. Stober when she gave him one.  

“She was caring, loving, helpful, strong, and determined,” said Mr. Stober.

“I had a beautiful life,” she told The Enterprise in 2016, attributing it to her life’s philosophy, instilled in her childhood. “I was brought up to be nice to people,” she said. Her father, a painter, liked to help people, she said. “If you are nice to people, they are nice to you,” said Mrs. Smith. “Bad comes from yourself.”

****

Gertrude Rosalie Smith is survived by many beloved nieces and nephews.

Her husband, Frank L. Smith Jr., died before her; as did her two sisters, Paula and Hildegard, and her brother, Alois.

A service will be held in Voorheesville in the spring.

Those wishing to offer a memory of Mrs. Smith are asked to leave it on her Facebook page

— Sean Mulkerrin

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