Like getting a ‘piece of childhood back’

March 23, 2019

MICHIGAN CITY — While it may seem like a simple gesture, a former Michigan City resident living in Australia said an act of kindness by a funeral home in his hometown has helped him “get his life back.”

City native Edward Smithman left for Tennessee in 1984 and eventually moved to Australia in 2003. He met his future wife, Janelle Rose Wilson, in Ballarat Victoria, and they were married twice.

The first was on Valentine’s Day 2004 on Lake Wendouree View Point; and again in Room 315 of the former St. Anthony Hospital on Oct. 16, 2005, where his mother was battling an illness, which took her life just two months later.

The couple returned to Australia and purchased a 43-acre Hobby Farm in Snake Valley Victoria, “and that is where our home and everything in it burnt to the ground on May 25, 2018,” Smithman said.

“Our home burnt down and everything in it was destroyed – everything ... it was almost as if my life has been erased,” he said.

The losses included almost all of his family photos and mementos, including a very special flag.

“My father had died some years ago and was cremated at the Carlisle Funeral Home, and upon collecting his ashes, I received the customary U.S. flag because of his service in the Army. But it too was burnt to ashes,” Smithman said.

His father, Warren Otto Smithman Sr., died in Jan. 20, 2004, still living in the family home on Pahs Road near Michigan City High School.

“The flag meant a lot to me,” Smithman said. “I had made a special box to put it out on display.”

Not sure what to do, he decided to “try a long shot” and contact the funeral home, which was now Geisen-Carlisle Funeral & Cremation Services.

“I decided to contact the funeral home about getting it replaced and found that the funeral home was now under new owners,” Smithman said. “I explained what had happened and was even going to purchase a replacement flag, but the funeral home said they would happily replace the flag for free, all I had to do was pay for shipping.”

Jaye Julian Recupido, officer manger at Geisen-Carlisle, said it was the first time for such a request.

“He contacted us because we had served his father, said he ended up in Australia and his home burned and his father’s flag was lost,” she said. “He wanted to see about getting the flag replaced and, of course, we made it happen because of the circumstances.”

Every honorably discharged veteran is entitled to a flag, she said, but this was the first time a replacement was requested.

“It’s never happened before,” Recupido said. “We had someone who had the bronze military marker stolen from a cemetery, and we also assisted in providing a replacement.”

After first being contacted by Smithman in August 2018, and following delays due to calls and emails not always getting through to and from Australia, a new flag was sent out in early February, Recupido said.

“I just received the flag (on Feb. 26) and was overjoyed,” Smithman said last week. “It filled a hole in my heart that was left there from the fire, and I have already started making a new display box for the flag, even though we don’t have a house as of yet to put it in.”

He said the emotions he felt included relief and gratefulness.

“I just felt so overjoyed and overwhelmed that a funeral company was willing to go out of their way to help me fill an emptiness ... all of my family have died or are no longer living in the City by the Lake, so I really had no one else to turn to for help in this matter.

“I really felt pride in the funeral home and the City for going out of their way to help close an open wound,” Smithman said. “They truly went way beyond what I had expected and filled a bit of emptiness from losing everything I had.”

Recupido was appreciative of the praise, but said it was just a way of giving back to a veteran.

“It was the least we could do,” she said. “We are partial to vets, and do all we can to help them out, things like the annual Veterans Dinner, and this was just something we wanted to do.”

For Smithman, it was like getting a piece of his childhood back.

“I once again have something from the great City on the Lake,” he said. “When I mean I lost everything, I lost my entire childhood from growing up in such a great city. ... It was such a wonderful deed a funeral home did to make one of its old citizens just a little bit better.”

The family originally came to Michigan City in 1972, he said, and lived in the house on Pahs Road until his brother – Warren O. Smithman Jr. – died in August 2004.

Edward Smithman and his wife are planning to rebuild their home in Snake Valley, but he said looking for photos for this story rekindled fond members of MC.

“Digging up the photos of my father kind of hit hard as to what I have lost ... Moving so far away from where I grew up makes it rather difficult at times. At least when I was in Tennessee, it was only a 10- to 12-hour drive...

“Now, I don’t even have a birth certificate, which will be a real pain to get as I was born in West Germany when my father was in the Army.”

But he does have the flag back.

“I just found it very touching and am very grateful that Geisen-Carlisle, especially Jaye, took the time and effort to replace my father’s flag. It was not something they had to do, and to offer to replace it for free was something very special, an extraordinary effort to get the flag to me.

“They will never know how much it has helped me.”