Louisville Magazine

MAR 2014

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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3.14 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 1 0 9 By Keith L. Runyon Photos by Mickie Winters Thomson Smillie 1942-2014 I frst met Tomson Smillie more than 30 years ago when the young Scots- man, his frst wife, Anne, and his four children — Jonathan, Jane, Julia and David — moved to Louisville and settled into a cottage down the hill from where I lived with my wife and daughter. Troughout his years as an opera impresario and later in his time as a writer for this magazine and occasionally for the Courier-Journal, we kept in touch. But I never really knew the brilliant and finty Scotsman well until late last sum- mer, when arts philanthropist Christy Brown encouraged me to fgure out a way to talk to him about the innovative days when he ran Kentucky Opera. Tomson was in failing health, sufering from pulmonary fbrosis, and he was being kept alive by heavy doses of steroids as well as oxygen. Christy brought up the subject of some kind of interview when he and his second wife, Marilyn Meredith (Anne died unexpectedly in 2003), came to a June lun- cheon. Tomson, who later told me he was a bit cross and certainly in much discomfort that day, at frst demurred. But Christy, who had helped recruit Tomson for the KO and had been his close friend and champion ever after, persisted, and by early September he had agreed to meet with me at his Arts and Crafts-style home in the Cherokee Triangle to discuss the project. I knew he had been sick, but I was ill-prepared for how sick he was. In addition to the breathing assistance, he had gained some weight from steroids and was in a wheelchair. And yet, when I joined him and Marilyn in their cozy kitchen, I once again was enchanted by the warmth and outrageous humor of the man whose innovations in opera earned him an international reputation. With his trademark bow tie and a vest, he was ready to talk. Initially, it was unclear what format we would follow. I quickly realized that doing any kind of one-on-one interviews would be too much for him, but it occurred to me that if he could just dictate his life story into a small cassette tape recorder, I could transcribe and edit and we'd see what we came up with. He liked the idea, so he and Marilyn set of for Radio Shack to buy a cassette recorder (they aren't so easy to fnd anymore) and he began his work. And the technique was magi- cal. Tomson could dictate at his own pace, uninterrupted by my questions or intru- sions. And when he felt like resting, he just turned of the recorder and came back to it. What emerged over the course of the next two months was a series of monologues, peppered with outrageous comments about people he knew in Louisville as well as in Great Britain and elsewhere. Profane and candid, the voice on tape, especially in the frst weeks of our partnership, was strong, and his magnifcent Scottish brogue was a joy to hear for hours on end. Tose who have followed his monthly column in Lou- isville Magazine realize what a gifted writer he was in addition to all of his other talents. His stories, beginning with a rather idyllic middle-class childhood in Glasgow, were told in complete sentences and paragraphs. In time, it was clear that he was even dictat- ing chapters. And as the story unfolded, it reminded me more and more of the classic memoir of the theater, Act One by Moss Hart. But where Hart's 1959 best-seller was loosely based on his early life, Smil- lie's was meticulously honest. And he had scrapbooks to prove it, having been profled often in his 71 years, beginning when he was publicist for the Scottish Opera in its early days. For those who remember his charming and informative radio broadcasts about upcoming operas, it shouldn't be a surprise that he told his own story well. Tat he did so at a time when he was in great pain, and often unable to settle in with the tape recorder because of doctor's appointments and treatments, is a tribute to his courage. Te tapes came sporadically through the autumn. I was working on other projects and they backed up a little bit, but when a mutual friend confded to me that he was near death, I turned up the steam and moved through the transcripts deliberately. As questions arose, I would fre of emails to Tomson, and if he was well enough to get to his computer and read his email, I'd get a re- sponse quickly. (One such exchange involved the wedding date of his elder daughter, Jane, which he placed in the 1980s. I challenged this because in that decade Jane was a high- schooler who was a favorite sitter for my daughter, Amelia. Turns out I was right on that one. I suggested that Jane's wedding was in the early '90s. In the last answer he sent to me before he became too ill to respond came this: "1993 is correct! I guess that makes Amelia close to 30. Yikes! I feel old tonight.") Te frst week of 2014, I pushed ahead with the transcripts and then, on Tursday, Jan. 9, fnished them and dropped of print- outs for him to review and edit. I didn't ring the bell, though, because I had heard that Hosparus had entered the case, and I did not want to interrupt any treatment. What would turn out to be my last email from Tomson came at 6:15 the following Sunday morn- ing with this: "Bit of a set-back when I fell badly and struck head in bathroom. Of to Bapt East but should get sprung and out late Sunday a.m." Six days later, surrounded by Marilyn and his four children, Tomson Smillie's fght ended. But what he has left behind is a won- derful account of life in Louisville's nationally recognized arts work in the yeasty 1980s and 1990s. Whatever becomes of this project, the voice of Tomson Smillie has been preserved, telling the stories that he enjoyed so much. Keith L. Runyon retired in 2012 after 43 years as a writer and editor at the Courier-Journal. Now, among other things, he does a weekly commentary for WFPL-FM and writes for the public radio station's website. 84-120 BACK.indd 109 2/20/14 12:23 PM

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