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Farewell to a friend

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

The many American flags crackled loudly in the brisk breeze, as a gloomy sky threatened at any time to burst again into rain, as it had earlier Sunday morning.

A large gathering of people stood that afternoon on the grass in front of the Lighthouse Keeper’s house in the center of St. George Island.  The parking lot was filled with fire trucks and ambulances, and quietly lining the brick path leading to the house were many men and women dressed in first responder blue.

The 1 p.m. farewell to the St. George Island first responder, who died three weeks ago from the perils of attempting a water rescue headlong into a rough sea, began when it was supposed to, as the weather had cleared enough to allow a damp gray bluster to descend.

The bagpiper Russel Pfost keened tunes befitting Brian Stephen Smith, as he stood unaccompanied, a far social distance from others on the grass and from the family, Smith’s widow Beth, son Byren and daughter Rachael, gathered on the balcony of the keeper’s house.

Bagpiper Russell Pfost plays as the honor guard marches during Brian Smith's memorial service.
St George Island fire chief Kevin Delahanty leads the Smith family, wife Beth, son Byren and daughter Rachael, from the ceremony. Pastor Jon Bishop is at upper left.

From Walton County, a fire department honor guard carrying the colors - District Chief Christopher Brown, paramedic Katelin Castleberry, emergency medical technician  Josh Brock, and deputies Harold Shover and Jennifer Scott, advanced between the two blue lines.

The honor guard prepares to move through the line of firefighters, first responders and law enforcement at the Lighthouse Park on St. George Island

Flags of both the United States and the State of Florida had been ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis to be flown at half-staff all day Sunday at the Franklin County Courthouse in Apalachicola, Florida, the City Hall in Apalachicola, the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department and the State Capitol in Tallahassee.

A table in front included Brian Smith's fire department gear.

Fire departments in attendance included the Panama City Beach Fire and Rescue, Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department, Panama City Fire Department, the South Walton Fire Department, the Mexico Beach Fire Department, and the Eastpoint, Apalachicola, Carrabelle and St. George Island Volunteer Fire Departments.

A family friend, Pastor Jon Bishop, conducted the service, with the reading of the obituary by family friend Larry Kenyon. St. George Island Fire Chief Kevin Delahanty offered remarks on behalf of the fire department.

All three men painted the same picture, of a friendly, devoted, loving man, whose decision Aug. 25 was in keeping with his dedication to duty.

A former Montebello, California policeman, he and his wife had relocated to St George Island, where Smith began a career in property management.

They spoke of his passion for animals, especially his beloved dogs Bad Bad “Leroy” Brown and “Skye” often seen at his side, in the fire truck, on the beach, or at local events.

An enormous American flag ripples horizontally in the wind above a truck from the Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department

“He was a coveted trivia teammate, a key volunteer for island fundraisers, and a good friend willing to listen to anyone who needed it,” read the obituary. “If something needed to be fixed, Brian was there. If you were feeling blue, it was Brian’s laughter that lifted you. If you were in trouble, it would be Brian jumping in to save you. Brian loved being a fireman and first responder and was always a calm head in times of need.”

The gathering included many people who had encountered Smith, whether on a call over the five years he served, or as part of his active involvement with local fundraisers, such as Chili Cook-off, Brewfest, and Pink Out.

“He never stopped looking for ways to help people in need,” said Kenyon. “Brian cared greatly for others and showed his love to family, friends and his community through actions and service.”

In a moving tribute, daughter Rachael offered the eulogy, moving in its simplicity. With her mom at her side, she spoke of family memories, of her dad holding all the children on the shore, each happily hanging on him.

She spoke of the typical phone calls she would make, on everything from how to jump a car or buy one, the kind of thing that her dad would happily help with.

And most of all, she told of how all the references to her dad as a hero truly honored him, but that the family knew deeply how what he had done was not something to be seen as unusual, given his commitment as a father, a husband, a brother, a son and a friend.

“This one act was not extraordinary for my father,” said Rachael Smith. “It was like another day.”

Longtime St. George Island firefighter Mason Bean had the honor of conducting the Bell Ringing Ceremony, with longtime Eastpoint firefighter Chief George Pruett tapping the bell to signal their fallen colleague.

The Honor Guard then presented the flag, with Shover carrying the folded flag up the steps to present it to Beth Smith.

Renae Brannan, head of the sheriff’s office dispatch, then gave the last call over the airwaves from an emergency medical unit parked nearby.

Following Bishop’s closing remarks, Bean recited the Fireman’s Prayer, and the family left, just as the rain started once again, a strong and solemn downpour.

The Brian Smith Memorial Fund has been established through Centennial Bank to support the family.