The Giving Spirit of Bill O. Smith
Local author and retired school principal (and Santa) launches his latest book
By Brighid Driscoll | Nov. 20, 2021
Traverse City author Bill O. Smith didn't expect to be living with his former mother-in-law as a middle-aged man, but when her health began to decline due to dementia, he stepped in to care for her in the last years of her life.
"My own mom had died when I was pretty young, so I was close to my mother-in-law. My divorce was amicable, I was at an age where I could retire, and she was living in a cottage that she really loved," he says.
In truth, Smith hadn’t planned on retiring just yet. He was an elementary school principal then, with about 20 years in — most of them spent at schools in Suttons Bay and Traverse City, two places he loved. But, he says, he likewise had never planned on having a mother-in-law who was such a rare individual, a lady he describes as “moving through the day with a quiet, egoless radiance.”
“That was Faith, and I loved her,” he says.
As the 85-year-old’s condition worsened, it became increasingly clear she needed a full-time caregiver. But Faith didn’t want to leave her beloved cottage near North Bar, in the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so Smith offered to help. The family accepted, and he retired.
“Some people get a gold watch,” he says. “I got Faith.”
IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT
Eventually, a person with dementia loses the ability to speak. As Faith grew silent, she would spend long stretches of her days looking out the window and observing nature's movements. In particular, she enjoyed watching the visiting chickadees.
"When people have dementia, for them, it's not about their memories anymore. It's about living in the moment and having moments of positive interaction," says Smith.
One evening, as he watched Faith watching the chickadees, he saw her eyes following them as they flew away. And though she couldn't verbalize it, he suspected she was wondering the same thing he was: Where do chickadees go at night?
He began creating clever rhymes about the chickadees to entertain Faith and create positive moments of interaction between the two.
"The repetition is fun; it makes you laugh. It made her laugh," Smith says. As his mental library of rhymes and couplets grew, he decided to shape them into something bigger. He created an entire story from these poems, then published it as “Chickadees at Night.”
Illustrated by well-known northern Michigan artist Charles R. Murphy, the children’s book explores where the woodland birds go at night. Faith wasn’t the only one who delighted in the whimsical words about the mystery of her beloved birds’ nocturnal habits; kids and parents did, too.
So Smith began exploring more about the lively little birds, going on to write a second book, “The Chickadee Spirit,” which explores the community and forest fun of the chickadee world. He followed that with “Chickadeeland,” an environmentally focused tale with a message, then “Four a.m December 25th,” a Christmas-themed book for which he donated all profits to worthy veterans organizations.
A GIFT FOR SANTA
This year, Smith has returned to where he started: Faith’s beloved chickadees. In his latest book, “Chickadees in December,” however, Smith took inspiration from his own experience with other little creatures.
For almost 10 years, Smith was Santa Claus for downtown Traverse City.
"They had the parade with Santa Claus coming in on a [fire truck]. I was always presented with the key to the city and that kind of thing," he says.
Eventually, a tiny North Pole cottage appeared downtown the day after Thanksgiving — usually at the corner of State and Cass streets, and kids would tell Smith … er, Santa what they wanted. Those exchanges fired up Smith’s imagination.
"I'd tell them things about what was going on at the North Pole — there's a truck stuck in the Candy Cane Forest, that kind of thing. I'd get on the phone with Mrs. Claus, look up at the mayor and say 'Really? The elves are working 25 hours a day!'"
Like his mother-in-law’s wide-eyed silence at the chickadees’ departure and laughter at Smith’s rhyming explanations for it, kids loved the tidbits “Santa” shared about what was happening at the North Pole.
Smith turned those ideas into the story of the "tough and tender, clever and bold, never ever afraid of the cold" chickadees, who of course, arrive just in time to help save Christmas.
A GIFT FOR ALL
Like every one of Smith’s books, all profits from “Chickadees at Night” are donated. The recipients, Smith says, are all organizations he believes Faith would support — among them, Historic Sleeping Bear Preservation, Wings of Wonder, Father Fred Foundation, Salvation Army, and Traverse City’s VFW Post 2790.
The origins and results of Smith’s books might seem to be the gifts he created to benefit Faith, kids, and his local community, but at heart, each seems to be as much a gift for the author himself.
As Smith tells Northern Express, “When the inevitable happens — when you or someone you love acquires big health problems — I hope you won’t spend too much time fixating on the past, on what is lost.
“The way to stay young is to look for the possibilities ahead. Plan for beautiful moments, delight in bursts of joy, discover a fresh sense of purpose. Surprising new worlds are out there, maybe as close as a backyard birdfeeder, or a loved one that needs a helping hand.”
You can find Bill O. Smith's books at www.billosmith.com, Up North bookstores, and, of course, your local library.