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Obituaries

Garrard Smock, Jr., 86; 3rd-Generation Pullman Porter in Rail's Golden Age

January 14, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Garrard "Babe" Smock Jr., a third-generation Pullman porter who received recognition late in life as a living symbol of the thousands of black men who catered to passengers during the golden age of luxury train travel, has died. He was 86.

Smock of Mira Loma died of pneumonia Saturday at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, said his daughter, Cheryl Tate.

Smock, a Los Angeles native who was called Babe since childhood, was 18 years old when he went to work for the Pullman Co. in 1937. But he wasn't the only third-generation member of his family to become a porter. His older brothers, Virgil and George, were already working as porters when he came aboard.

It was not unusual for two and even three generations of black family members to work for Pullman. But in the late 1930s when the three Smock brothers and their father found themselves working together on the Lark -- the Southern Pacific's first-class sleeper train from Los Angeles to San Francisco -- it was considered unusual enough to land them in "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Last year, a vintage picture of all four Smocks in their midnight-blue uniforms and black caps became the cover photo for "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class," a book by former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye.

"They are sort of my touchstone family," Tye, who interviewed Babe and Virgil Smock for his book, told The Times this week. "The Pullman porter job was so cherished in the black community in those years, from just after the Civil War until the Pullman Co. went out of business in 1969, that fathers passed it down to their sons, who passed it down to their sons."

Babe Smock's grandfather, George Anderson Smock, had a 27-year career riding the rails as a porter; he died in 1929 while making a bed aboard Santa Fe's California Limited. Babe Smock's father, Garrard Sr., began his 35-year career with Pullman in 1915.

Although Babe and Virgil continued working for Pullman until 1960, George quit after four years, frustrated over the poor treatment he received from white supervisors, whom he compared to slave drivers.

In the black community through the mid-1900s, Tye said, the Pullman porter was among the most revered of jobs, and those who held them were among the most respected men.

But, Tye said, the job did have its negatives: It kept the men away from home for days or weeks at a time and allowed them at most four hours of sleep a night. Porters also received low pay (supplemented by tips), and throughout almost the entire history of the company, a porter could never be promoted to conductor.

But Virgil and Babe Smock reportedly learned to take the downside of the job in stride.

"Babe was an incredibly soft-spoken, gentle man, which was typical of these consummate diplomats, the Pullman porters," Tye said. "But when you got him going, like any porter, he was a brilliant storyteller and a great chronicler of a critical piece of American railroad and cultural history."

Working on trains such as the Golden Gate, the Sunset, the Bostonian and the legendary 20th Century Limited, Smock served as an attendant in the buffet cars, where he cooked and waited on tables. He also served drinks in the lounge cars, made beds and ironed clothes.

"There was no more elegant era of travel generally in American history than the golden age of train travel," Tye said, "and the embodiment of that age was the Pullman sleeping car and, most especially, the Pullman porter who took care of the passengers' every whim."

The Pullman porter, Tye said, "acted as janitor and maid, shining shoes, nursing hangovers, tempering tempers and performing other tasks that won him tips and made him indispensable to his wealthy white travelers who snapped their fingers in the air when they needed them."

Movie stars and other notables were among the passengers Smock served, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first lady, Eleanor.

In an interview, Smock recalled meeting Roosevelt, who was seated in his compartment with his dog, Fala, at his feet and a 4-inch cigarette holder in his hand. The president asked for his name.

"I said, 'Garrard,' and he said, 'No. Your last name,' " Smock recalled. "People of nobility or class call you by your last name and Mr."

But he didn't always deal with such classy passengers.

"We'd have those who'd call you 'boy' ... thought he was a big shot when he'd say that," he recalled. "My brother Virgil used to say: 'Boy's not on this trip. He stayed at home.' "

As Smock put it, he saw "the good, the bad, and the ugly" on the job.

"I had them die on me, I had them born on me," he said in an interview. "I'd run to tell the Pullman conductor, 'Hey, we have a new passenger about to come aboard!' "

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