A Sundance rancher, former Wyoming House speaker and son of a former governor who was a decades-long player in Cowboy State politics was killed in a head-on crash Friday.
Nels Smith, 84, and his wife Jeanette, 85, died when their 2022 Chrysler minivan traveling on U.S. 85 north of Lingle on Friday crossed the center line and collided with a 2023 Toyota driven by 44-year-old Torrington resident Alicia Rodriguez, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reports. All three died at the scene.
Smith, a Crook County Republican known for his tall stature and deep voice, served in the Wyoming Legislature for 14 years before rising to speaker of the House from 1977-1979. He joined the Legislature as one of the youngest lawmakers in state history at the age of 23.
He also served as House majority floor leader and House speaker pro tempore. He was the grandson of Nels H. Smith, the 18th governor of Wyoming from 1939-1943.
Current state Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, is Smith’s cousin.
“He had a long and great career,” Driskill said of Smith’s political impact.
Smith had a reputation for opposing taxes, following in the footsteps of his governor grandfather, who instituted programs leading to the abolition of the state property tax, according to the National Governors Association.
In 1974, Nels Smith proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit state income taxes in Wyoming. Voters passed the measure, which still holds today.
He also sponsored the first strip mine reclamation law in the West.
In a Monday afternoon statement, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wyoming has lost "a remarkable leader and a giant of a man in Wyoming ranching, politics and public service. His deep, resonating voice was put to good use, as he influenced state policy for decades. Nels’ insight was enormously helpful to me in my time as treasurer and as governor."
Smith's public service went far beyond elected office, Gordon said.
"In addition to his long legislative career, Nels served for nearly a decade on the Wyoming Public Service Commission, where he recognized the importance of a viable, reliable, electric, gas and communications system for Wyoming residents," he said. "Nels was resolute in his support for the agricultural community, reflected in his membership of the Wyoming Stockgrowers and serving with Jennie on the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust Board."
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, served on a few different boards with Smith.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the tragic car crash which claimed the lives of former House Speaker Nels Smith, his wife Jeanette,as well as Alicia Rodriguez of Torrington," Lummis said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily. "I served on several boards with Nels and enjoyed visiting him and Jeanette in their home. I always enjoyed their company.
"Nels served our state proudly in the Wyoming House of Representatives and was a passionate advocate for Crook County, Wyoming agriculture and our entire state. My prayers are with the loved ones of all those who lost their lives in this accident.”
Smith announced he would run for governor in 1982 long before the election, former Gov. Dave Freudenthal said in his 2022 book “The Paradox Of Plenty.” Freudenthal said Smith enjoyed support from his party’s leadership and was the favorite to win the Republican nomination.
He was to take on Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler, who announced he would run for an unprecedented third term as governor in the 1982 race.
According to Freudenthal, Smith withdrew from the race, citing health concerns.
Freudenthal told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that Smith was "just a wonderful human being" with an incredible knowledge of Wyoming.
"He was engaged and he loved it," Freudenthal said. "He loved the people and he loved the state."
Smith didn’t stray too far from politics, becoming Wyoming's Public Service commissioner in 1983. He stayed on as commissioner of the Wyoming Public Service Commission until 1991, and also was an active member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
He also served as president of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association.
Driskill said the former lawmaker was on just about every board one could imagine.
“He stayed nice and active until the end of his life,” Driskill said. “He did a huge amount of things.
In his later years, Smith served on the board of the Ranch A Restoration Foundation Board, a historic ranch in Beulah.
He also owned a few ranches of his own and lived off Sand Creek outside Sundance.
Driskill’s brother Jessie Driskill said there will be a private burial held at the family plot Sept. 19 with a remembrance afterward at Ranch A.
“It’s a part of life, I suppose,” Jessie Driskill said. “It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
"Jennie and I join his family, friends and the state of Wyoming in mourning the loss of Nels and Jeanette," Governor Gordon said. "This is a terrible tragedy for the Smith and Rodriquez families. May God comfort them in this time of need."
Wyoming Highway Patrol is still investigating the crash, but reports driver inattention and fatigue were potential contributing factors.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.