Saltwater Portrait

Kevin Smith: A running man who’s still running

Marathoner worked for 31 years in U.S. Senate
May 3, 2011
Kevin Smith of Lewes has taken to running marathons after more than three decades of running state offices for Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Ted Kauffman. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.

Kevin Smith hasn’t always been a running man, but his life has been one of constant motion. When talking to Smith, be prepared to listen fast because he talks fast.

Smith, 62, of Lewes, has run four marathons, his first two years ago. “The first one I did was the Ocean Drive Marathon in Cape May. Then I did Philadelphia, the Rehoboth Marathon and the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail Marathon. My goal is to run one marathon in all 50 states. I have four states down,” he said.

Smith ran a 4:29 at Cape May and a 4:13 at Baltimore-Annapolis. He said he doesn’t like running with big crowds but he wanted to do a marathon in Pennsylvania so he chose Philadelphia.

Born in Chester, Pa., he said he knows and enjoys Philly. He opted against running the Boston Marathon because of the crowded field. Just over 23,000 people ran the 2010 Boston race.

“I’m already registered for Philadelphia – this is the guy who’s not going to do Boston. There were 24,000 runners in the Philadelphia Marathon,” he said laughing at the irony. So far, he said, he enjoyed the Philly run most.

“It was awesome, awesome. This is one where you have your name on your bib. So I’m running down South Street, people lining both sides of the street, and they’re yelling ‘Yeah, Kevin Smith!’” he said.

It was in Philly that at the finish line Smith got a high-five from Bart Yasso, chief running officer at Runner’s World magazine.

“He said, ‘Nice run.’ That was the highlight of my running career,” he said.

Last year, he trained three months in preparation for the February 2010 Myrtle Beach Half Marathon in South Carolina.

“It was a disaster,” he said. He and his wife drive to all events. “We had to do a two-day drive to Myrtle Beach. We had bed and breakfast reservations, and we were supposed to be there Valentine’s Day weekend. Then the snowstorm hit. We couldn’t get out of Delaware,” he said.

They lost their reservations and on Friday, drove straight through to Myrtle Beach.

“I went in to pick up my tag number, and it started snowing, in February, in Myrtle Beach for the first time in 20 years. I had trained three months for a half-marathon and it was cancelled that night,” he said.

Smith had never really done any distance running for years before starting his marathon quest.

“When I was in the army in basic training, the drill sergeant came up and said, ‘Smith, you’re our distance runner. Be on the track tomorrow at 6 in the morning.’ I ran the mile,” he said.

While stationed at West Point Army Hospital in New York, and while stationed in Japan, he continued running, but not much.

Since retiring, Smith has taken a part-time job selling running gear at the Nike outlet store on Route 1 near Rehoboth Beach.

“People I respect say I should write a book. But I’m not going to do anything for a least year,” he said.

When he graduated from high school, the Vietnam War was raging and he enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained as a combat medic.

In 1967, he was stationed at U. S. Army Hospital Camp Zana in Japan and, he said, because he was “just a dumb kid,” he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Smith said at the Camp Zana army personnel center, a sergeant checked his orders. “He said, “What the hell are you doing here? Your orders say U.S. Army Personnel Far East. You’re supposed to be in Bien Hoa. You’re one lucky S.O.B.,’ he said.

He was lucky because the U.S. Air Force base he would have been stationed at near Bien Hoa was under constant North Vietnamese Army attack.

During the 1968 Tet offensive, Smith was at the Camp Zuma hospital where many of America’s wounded were sent. “That was really the beginning of the end of the war,” Smith said.

After the war, Smith graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and from there he was off and running.

He worked a year in executive service field- operations for the 1980 U.S. Census during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. He followed that working more than three decades for the U.S. Senate as an aid for a man who’s a heartbeat away from being President of the United States, Vice President Joe Biden.

Smith also worked for Sen. Ted Kauffman, who completed two years remaining on Biden’s term.

Smith‘s Senate job was handling state office operations. He said Biden noticed most calls his Washington, D.C., office received could be handled better by staff in Delaware, so he spread staff into each county.

“When I first started, I opened the office in Dover in the federal building. Then we had an office in Georgetown, and for a period of time I ran both offices,” Smith said.

He said the offices provided constituent services for individuals and project services for federal and municipal agencies and other organizations.

“In the end, we consolidated services because we didn’t have a lot of walk-in traffic. Most of what we did was over the telephone or on the computer,” he said.

Smith said often, when there’s an issue that must be taken care of, such as a military construction project, those matters would become what senators call “lapel issues.”

“Sen. Biden would have to walk into the well and grab one of his colleagues by the lapel and say, ‘We’ve gotta’ do this one, and this is why.’ All the good staff work that everybody compliments occurs, but oftentimes it comes down to a lapel issue – make the case. It’s not a you owe me one, it’s a member from Delaware explaining to a member from Arizona why benefits accrue to Arizona as much as they do Delaware,” Smith said.

He said one of the things he misses most about the old job is the Capitol Building. “It is one of the most incredible monuments. In 31 years, I still haven’t seen all of it that I want to see. It would take me a lifetime to take it all in,” he said.

So, was Smith surprised when then-Sen. Barack Obama asked Biden to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign?

“Absolutely. The only thing that surprised me more than his being asked is that he accepted,” Smith said. And why was he surprised?

“He’d never worked for anybody in his life. And no matter which way you slice it, he’s number two and he works for Obama.

“I don’t mean that in a negative way about Obama or the administration or the way they’ve set things up, but just personally, if you ask me, the biggest surprise in my lifetime was that he was asked, second only to that he accepted,” Smith said.

Smith worked the 2007 Iowa caucuses for Biden and said he instantly saw how soundly Biden would be defeated there.

“They’d (Obama workers) been on the ground in Iowa for two years. They had a full-time paid staff. We had too little, too late,” he said.

Smith said he and Biden are friends, and they remain close. He’s always called Biden “Senator,” never Joe.

And although he was only with Kauffman two years, Smith said he has a great deal of respect for him and his intellect.

“There was no learning curve with him. When he walked in, he knew what he was doing. He was amazing to watch,” Smith said.

Smith said he enjoyed his career at the Senate. “I have no regrets. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have tremendous respect for any member who serves and tremendous respect for anyone who ever runs for public office, regardless of party or philosophy,” he said.

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