Remembering Carl Castleman Smith: Beloved Special Olympics coach, gardener and voracious reader

Carl Castleman Smith, an Oakland native and life-long Bay Area resident who was beloved by his community, died on September 4. He was 71 years old.

Everyone who knew Carl remembers him as a kind and gentle person. He had a sharp wit and wicked sense of humor. Always generous, he loved to grow and share vegetables from his garden. He was a great cook who continued feeding others his creations, even after he was unable to eat as a consequence of the radiation treatments he endured in his battle with throat cancer. When he could no longer speak, he kept people cracking up with witty comments he wrote on his tablet.

Carl had a profound sense of justice, which led him to become a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He worked with people with developmental disabilities as his alternative service and afterwards went to the Philippines with the Peace Corps.

He brought his sense of service home to his local community, where he dedicated his adult life to working with children and the developmentally disabled. Countless children in the community enjoyed his leadership and care throughout the 30-plus years he served as a recreation leader for the city of Berkeley at James Keney, Willard, Live Oak and Frances Albrier Parks. He was a beloved Special Olympics coach and, for over 20 years, explored the Bay Area with a group of individuals with autism. Every Saturday, the group attended free events throughout the Bay Area, taking BART to various destinations and enjoying each other’s company. It became a family affair with Carl’s wife and son joining in on the adventures. Carl’s gentle strength and determination were evident when he continued to work with children even after health challenges and loss of stamina challenged his ability to do so.

Carl was a voracious reader and often read several books at the same time. Mysteries, sci-fi (especially Phillip K. Dick) and history books were in constant rotation. He additionally loved to read about old movies, actors, musicians, historical figures and even books about books. He had an exceptional memory and would always know the answer to questions you may have. He was the original Wikipedia. Only a fool would challenge him to a game of Trivial Pursuit.

After retirement, Carl had the opportunity to develop his artistic talents. He joined the ceramics collective at the senior center where he made new and treasured friends. He cultivated his painting skills, creating many beautiful works into the last few years of his life. He had an eclectic taste in music and enjoyed many genres: country, folk, jazz, classical and, mostly, the music of his youth –Santana, the Dead, Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, etc. He enjoyed strumming on his guitar and entertaining others, especially kids.

Carl loved old movies and when his health limited his ability to be active, Turner Classic Movies was a source of enjoyment, together with watching sports, mysteries, painting, and, of course, reading books.

Carl was a faithful fan of Cal football. He would follow professional teams that had Cal alumni on their roster. He was also a devoted A’s fan and, in later years, the Golden State Warriors.

For most of the last 18 years of his life, Carl was dependent on a g-tube to get nutrition. In spite of that and other challenges, he traveled extensively with his wife, family and friends. They explored Hawaii, Australia, Japan, China, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey and made several trips to Mexico to visit family.

Carl cultivated life-long friendships and he treasured those friends. His high school friends remained teammates over the years when they held their annual “Turkey Bowl” football game. It was in these games that he earned the nickname “Cheapshot” (the conflicting versions as to why was a huge source of amusement to Carl and his buddies). Everyone enjoyed his fast wit and dry sense of humor.

He adored and was loved back by his children: Sylvie White, Alicia Rodriguez and Nick Smith, their partners John, Emilio and Aura; his granddaughter Nayeli, goddaughter Emma and several young people who took him in as “grandpa,” “daddy,” “papi,” or “nino.” He is survived by his sister Adrienne Rogers, sisters-in-law Maria Luisa and Francoise de Mateo, brothers-in-law Jeff, Alejandro and Fernando, nephews and nieces, his children and grandchildren, and his wife, lifelong partner and love, Rocio de Mateo Smith.

The family is profoundly grateful to all the health professionals who helped us through this long journey, especially his personal physician Dr. Walter Acuna; his medical assistant Lisette Rodriguez; Ronette Hamilton, interventional radiology; Dr. Hugh Benedict, hospital physician; DeYang, who helped care for him at home; and all the other hospital doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, social workers and the palliative care team.

Carl did not want a funeral. Instead, he asked that those who loved him enjoy some good food and music in his honor.