© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mr. Smith went to Washington: Neal Smith has died at age 101

John Pemble
IPR file
Neal Smith at IPR's Des Moines studios in 2015.

Neal Smith was a Des Moines lawyer from the small town of Hedrick in Keokuk County when he defeated nine-term Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Cunningham in 1958, winning a seat in what was then Iowa’s 5th Congressional District.

“I wasn’t expected to win, of course,” Smith said in a 2015 Iowa Public Radio interview. “There had only been one Democrat ever to represent Polk County and he only lasted one term back in the 30s, so it was not expected I would win.”

Smith remained in the U.S. House for the next 36 years.

He credited that victory to the fact he was one of the first politicians in Iowa to advertise on a fairly young medium, television.

Smith told IPR’s Ben Kieffer he bought three, 5-minute TV programs for a grand total of $75, a minor sum compared with today’s political spending.

“I spent $10,300 on my first election, now they’re spending millions on elections,” Smith said. “It’s just terrible.”

His constituents supported Smith term after term because of his ability to draw federal money to his home district. He also became known for his advocacy work in the areas of food safety, education and the environment.

Smith pushed hard for development of the prairie restoration project now known as the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, where bison and elk roam and where rare birds are often spotted. Paula Drobney is a regional biologist based at the refuge. She was there in the early days of the preserve as Congressman Smith took an active interest in resuscitating the natural prairie.

“This was his vision, to have a place where we could have something that resembles what was here a couple hundred years ago, and to be able to have kids and their parents and just people in general explore and learn about that,” she said.

Drobney says Smith did not just give lip service to the projects he cared about: he would show up wearing a flannel shirt with wife Bea and the grandkids to lend a hand.

Smith was also largely responsible for bringing to central Iowa such public works projects as the Saylorville and Red Rock Reservoirs, and the Des Moines River Greenbelt.

The federal building in downtown Des Moines bears his name. The law center at his alma mater, Drake University, is named for Neal and Bea.

Smith took pride in his bipartisan approach to drafting legislation.

“When I was there, we put coalitions together on every bill, we just expected to,” he said on Iowa PBS’ Iowa Press in 2013. “We had Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats, Republicans.”

Before he reached Congress, Smith was a bomber pilot during World War II. His plane was shot down and he was awarded a Purple Heart.

The congressman who was swept into office during a Democratic landslide in 1958 was in turn ousted by plastic surgeon Greg Ganske in a Republican surge in 1994.

He published an autobiography, “Mr. Smith Went to Washington: From Eisenhower to Clinton,” in 1996. Neal Smith remained an active and trusted adviser to Iowa Democrats until his death.