One editor’s tribute to TM Smith

I have a few more words to share about my good friend and mentor Tim Smith. Today, I attended his funeral service — and the memories that are flooding back are powerful.

You know how editors are supposed to have the good bottle of whiskey in the drawer for when a big story is tackled or a reporter needs a pep talk? This sort of thing wasn’t really in vogue in the era of newspapering I worked in (1996-2016.) But I still had a bottle. And it was Tim who gave it to me to celebrate my promotion when I was working my way up the ladder at Crain’s Detroit Business.

I first met Tim when he was the communications director at Village Green Apartments. He would occasionally pitch stories or seek to compare notes on news. At that time, in the late ’90s, I was the Crain’s commercial real estate reporter.

I stayed in touch with Tim as we both went through career changes. You know those certain people you just really enjoy — people you can draw positivity from… and share frustrations, and keep it real? Tim was always like that. But it was when he took his role at Skidmore Studio that I saw his energy and passion really go through the roof.

There is a group of high-integrity people who work in media, marketing, advertising, communications and related fields.

And in metro Detroit, there are a precious few who manage to blend realism with optimism. Tough questions with an appetite for positive change. A real penchant for making things better. Tim was one of those people.

When you grabbed lunch or a cocktail with Tim, you were going to have a meaningful conversation. And it might get uncomfortable. And he might challenge you. He might try to push you out of your comfort zone with your plan or your idea.

This is exactly what I needed to hear from a friend who became one of my most trusted mentors over 20 years of sharing stories and experiences.

Under Tim’s leadership as CEO, Skidmore evolved from a design studio to a sophisticated creative agency that led large company brand overhauls. He helped clients think a little bigger. Sometimes a lot bigger.

Like many visionary entrepreneurs, Tim occasionally had moments of self-doubt. Did he come on too strong with his push-back to a client? Should he have compromised on a detail or a plan?

He was always reflecting and learning and growing. I admire that. Based on the conversations I had at the visitation and funeral, these exchanges were not unique to me.

He was open. His sons Hayden and Harrison had compelling stories of their own posted on a board at the funeral. Their dad was a unicorn.

Tim died at age 54 Tuesday night after cardiac arrest.

By the way, at the visitation, there was bourbon. Lots of it. And there was pink decor. This is a nod to Tim’s childhood pink bike and overall efforts to think differently. (It’s also part of the branding of his terrific book, Dare Mighty Things, A Field Guide for Millennial Entrepreneurs.)

When I was grappling with a career transition at the end of 2016 and early 2017, Tim was there for me. He was busy with his book. He was busy planning speaking appearances.

Tim was there for me anyway. We met up and he helped me brainstorm ways to reinvent myself. We met again in October of last year and brainstormed ways we might collaborate on some work.

Upon my urging, Tim joined me as a board member of the wonderful Warren-based mentoring nonprofit Winning Futures; he was on the board in 2014 and 2015 and engaged his firm in doing a full marketing audit for us. That is just one of the many examples of things he did to give back — without spending a lot of time taking victory laps about it.

It is ironic that my journey after leaving Crain’s as the Editor was to take a role running communications and marketing for CORE Partners, a full-service commercial real estate firm. While I stayed in journalism a little longer than Tim did, my next step was real estate. Tim and I joked that I was career-stalking him.

If people think I am trying to be like Tim Smith, I celebrate that.

Tim had one of the great minds in Detroit’s creative and corporate communities. And in his relationships with friends and peers, he could sense things and provide an encouraging word at just the right moment.

Not long ago, when he could tell I needed a laugh, Tim sent me a link to a famous scene from the movie Bull Durham. Remember the part when Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis says, “Good Lord willing, things will work out.”

Things worked out in a larger-than-life way for Tim Smith in his far-too-brief 54 years on this planet. As the pastor at today’s service said, he lived more life in those short years than many people ever do.

His sister observed that Tim’s death coincided with the meteor that flashed a bright light and crashed to Earth on Tuesday. A brief bright flash. The metaphor resonates.

I will miss you, friend.


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