When Sen. Al Simpson eulogized the passing of Gov. Ed Herschler, he said, “A tall tree is gone from Wyoming’s rugged skyline.” When Wyoming’s titans pass, I always think of those words. And there have been damn few trees taller in our state than Nels Smith.
I first met Nels at a Wyoming Stock Growers Association meeting when I was a twenty-something cowboy. The cattlemen and sheepmen in Carbon County had just merged their organizations, pretty much shocking both industries by this strange hybridization, and I was elected the first president of the new outfit.
When I attended my first WSGA meeting in this new capacity, Nels came up to me and said, “Stick close to me, kid. I won’t let these cowboys lynch a young sheepherder like you.”
Nels Smith stood six-and-a-half feet tall and spoke with a deep, rich baritone that made Sam Elliott sound like a schoolgirl. And I never once heard him raise that voice in anger.
Who wouldn’t feel safe around a giant like that?
Years later, when Nels was on the Public Service Commission, I went to work for Gov. Ed. I remember thinking I was the only Republican in a sea of Democrats. Once again, Nels took me under his broad wing, offering wise counsel and pointing out minefields and lynch mobs.
In his office at the PSC, Nels worked standing upright at a stand-up desk like a preacher’s lectern. It was quite a sight! He was huge and occupied a lot of space. There was nothing small about the man.
There are so many of you reading this who can tell your own Nels Smith stories. Each story is different in its own way, but each story is also about a tall, stout tree on the horizon that defies the winds and storms of Wyoming, a tall tree with deep, deep roots.
Nels Smith was born with Cowboy State DNA. His granddad had been Governor of Wyoming and political blood coursed through his veins. But, beyond partisan politics, Nels took very seriously his obligation to his home, his neighbors and his fellow Wyomingites.
I can’t think of a single instance when Nels had an opportunity to serve and passed it up. The man raised citizenship to an art form and we should all understand and respect the example he set.
It seems to me that with Nels Smith’s passing, as with the passing of men and women like him who lovingly nudged Wyoming along her path, we are left with two chores.
The first chore is to honor their memory and comfort one another by telling their stories to the next generation of Wyoming’s leaders. In fact, I can almost hear Nels’ rolling thunder voice telling us to do just that.
The final chore is to lift our collective eyes to the ragged skyline and take note of where those tall trees once stood with their limbs stretched out to protect us. Then we need to ask ourselves what we can do as Wyoming citizens to fill those gaps in the horizon.
Nels would like that, too.