Monticello D-Day crusade against smoking marks 40-year anniversary

During a recent interview, Margaret Smith and Don Smith recalled former Monticello Times newspaper publisher Lynn R. Smith’s efforts to launch what later became known as the Great American Smokeout. The original Don’t Smoke Day (D-Day) event had its genesis in Monticello 40 years ago this week on Jan. 7, 1974, when almost 300 smokers pledged they would give up smoking for one day.  (Photo by Tim Hennagir)

During a recent interview, Margaret Smith and Don Smith recalled former Monticello Times newspaper publisher Lynn R. Smith’s efforts to launch what later became known as the Great American Smokeout. The original Don’t Smoke Day (D-Day) event had its genesis in Monticello 40 years ago this week on Jan. 7, 1974, when almost 300 smokers pledged they would give up smoking for one day. (Photo by Tim Hennagir)

The American Cancer Society’s D-Day campaign, or Don’t Smoke Day, had its genesis in Monticello 40 years ago this week.

Lynn R. Smith was the publisher of The Monticello Times on Jan. 7, 1974, when he challenged the smokers of Monticello to quit smoking for one day.

Smith’s idea for Minnesota’s first-ever D-Day caught on elsewhere and on Nov. 18, 1976, the California Division of the American Cancer Society succeeded in getting nearly 1 million smokers to quit for the day.

That California event marked the first Great American Smokeout, which went nationwide the next year and continues today.

Since then, there have been dramatic changes in the way society views tobacco advertising and tobacco use. Many public places and work areas are now smoke-free. Certainly, that wasn’t the case nationally or locally in the years, months and days leading up to Monticello’s D-Day four decades ago.

Smith owned and published the Lester Prairie News and Carver County News, but sold both to purchase the Monticello Times in 1962.

Three hundred people pledged to stop smoking or using tobacco, and Smith put their names on the front page.
Smith retired in 1977, when he sold the Monticello Times and Shopper to his son, Donald Q. Smith.

Lynn continued to write his weekly Ramblings column for the Times’ editorial page until December 1998, when he suffered a stroke.

Lynn Smith died on July 14, 2005, at age 84, but his D-Day legacy continues.

“A community spirit developed,” Don Smith said in a recent interview that included his mother, Margaret.
“It wasn’t just a crusading newspaper editor,” he said. “The town was put on the map for something other than controversy surrounding the development and construction of the nuclear plant. There was no cause and effect, but Dad always said, ‘Well, now we can be Minnesota’s clean air city rather than a city known for a nuclear plant.’ He signed up a lot of smokers at the NSP plant. None of them could have foreseen the coverage and national and worldwide acclaim that would come Dad’s way.”

Broadcast legend Charlie Boone at WCCO-AM 830 did a remote radio broadcast from the Times’ office, Margaret recalled.

“At that time, Monticello was a very, very small community. Lynn had contacted him. The radio station interviewed many people in town, including Mayor Con Johnson, who was a very dedicated smoker.”

Don Smith said in the 1950s, when his father owned a newspaper in Watertown, Minn. his father was a smoker. Margaret added when Lynn finally quit smoking, he became an avid chewer of Dentyne gum.

“The office ashtrays would be filled with wads of gum,” she said. According to Don, Lynn’s statement about quitting was that he had “chickened out early” and had stopped smoking in 1954.

“He had served in the military during World War II, when everyone smoked. When he quit, he began writing mostly about the health hazards of smoking, and a little bit about the cost and the societal implications, but most of his focus was on health.”

Don Smith said that his father would save news clippings about the subject of smoking year-round, and would use the large pile of reports to do a Jan. 1 rundown.

While Margaret tried to play down her role in Smith’s crusade against smoking and its health dangers and cost to society, Don said his mother provided a support structure that directly contributed to her husband’s  success.

One day after Lynn returned home from working at the couple’s newspaper in Watertown, Margaret said one of their children asked Smith to blow a smoke ring.

“He said that probably convinced him as much as anything to quit smoking. He said, ‘If they think it’s glamorous, now is the time to nip it.’ ”

Don and Margaret also recalled how Lynn’s efforts landed him a meeting with starlet Rachel Welch.

“He went to San Francisco, and she was out there. Don Smith said after the success of the Minnesota Don’t Smoke Day effort, the state of California did its event, and his parents were invited to give a presentation about how the campaign had worked in Monticello and Minnesota. His father ended up having his picture taken with Rachel Welch. Margaret said that she was more scared than jealous of the publicity.

Later on, the photo of Lynn Smith and Welch became ribbing fodder for community organizations such as Rotary. “Our club used to have a February Sweetheart banquet, and it came just on the heels of this photo being taken. Dad found the copy of the Monticello Times, and you have to remember this was during pre-Photoshop days. He found a picture of just about every Monticello Rotarian and cut them out. He put them on a copy machine with Welch’s picture, made copies and distributed them at the banquet to the men who were there.”

“Lynn was a letter-writer, too,” Margaret said. “He had a big file of letters to celebrities and dignitaries.” Don Smith said has father was also a great promoter.

“His zeal was so great,” Don said. “He was able to get people to sign pledge cards at the back of the church. He sat in the pew in the four weeks leading up to D-Day, and if he didn’t have a person on his list, he nailed them in the narthex,” Don said with a laugh. “People tried to avoid him because they knew he was coming.”

Two key movers and shakers in Smith’s D-Day effort were the schools and the medical community in Monticello, Don said. “At the time, we had doctors who smoked. They signed pledge cards. What was surprising was the number of male teachers who smoked. We called the high school lounge ‘The Blue Room’.”

Margaret said that she was never snubbed by anyone because of her involvement in Lynn’s effort to raise awareness about the health hazards of smoking.

“We were a small town at that time, and we practically knew everybody,” she said. “But we learned about the impact a small newspaper could have.”

Don Smith said 100 days after D-Day, his father surveyed those who had signed the pledge cards not to smoke. He estimated 10 percent were still not smoking.

“Almost 300 people signed cards,” he said. “D-Day dramatically changed people’s lives. The impact was such that it caught the attention of the American Cancer Society, and that’s when it started to take life. Dad would receive gratitude from total strangers sometimes, because in two years following the original D-Day, my mother and father began traveling the state by car, doing interviews at radio stations and newspapers.”

According to Don, his father’s D-Day effort clearly helped put the city of Monticello and its newspaper on the national map. “For the rest of his life, he was introduced as the person who helped start the Great American Smokeout,” he said. “They made a connection that a newspaper publisher helped get it started. He found great pride in that.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at tim.hennagir@ecm-inc.com

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