CHICAGO (AP) _ In 1960, Bill Smith was the beatnik candidate for president, running on a platform calling for government dismantlement. After 25 years, four heart attacks and the loss of his life savings, he’s fighting for his health and home with the help of some friends.
Last year the 61-year-old Smith suffered complications from congestive heart failure, was forced to quit his job, and lost $8,000 when burglars broke into his home. Now he can barely afford to pay the rent and heating bills for his North Side apartment.
But about 150 of his artist friends, many wearing the black beret that many beatniks sported, held a fund-raiser and roast for him Wednesday night at a North Side bar.
″I would only do it for a really exceptional personality,″ said Walter Foran, who volunteered his Red Poppy Cafe. ″There’s not very many people around like that anymore.″
Foran, 43, said that after the beatnik years, Smith used to come in to drink coffee and talk politics.
″That’s exactly what I want here,″ he said. ″I was a beatnik myself.″
In the ’50s, Smith owned an all-night Chicago bookstore next to the old beatnik bar College of Complexes. His store carried the works of such beat heroes as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Kerouac’s view that ″all politics was a disaster″ may have influenced Smith, who one night in 1959 stood up in the bar and made an impromptu speech ″on the usual things that we all believed in in the ’50s - civil rights, pacifism and anarchy.″
The speech was a hit, and ″I found myself nominated,″ Smith said.
Smith and Joffre Stewart, his vice presidential candidate, used the slogan: ″Don’t vote, but if you must, vote for yourself, and if you don’t have enough ego to do that, vote for us.″ ″We said if we were elected, we would dismantle the government ... peacefully take the whole thing apart,″ said Stewart, 59.
Their unofficial campaign took Smith and Stewart to college campuses and beatnik hangouts across the country. Political action committees, fund-raisers and even campaign funds were unheard of.
″Who had money?″ Smith said with a laugh. ″We hoboed it, we’d ride in freight trains, did whatever we had to to get our message across.″
Smith said he didn’t keep track of how many votes he received, but he kept his sense of humor, even in defeat. John F. Kennedy won the election; Richard M. Nixon also lost.
After the campaign, because ″many of us were taught if you don’t like the system, get into it and change it,″ Smith got a job with the Illinois Bureau of Employment Security, hoping to find jobs for the needy as director of the Comprehensive Employment and Training program.
″By 1980, I was so worn out trying to make the program work and entrenched in bureacracy I had a heart attack,″ he said.
The same year, Smith had two more coronaries and finally underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He recovered and went to work as chief of supportive services for the mayor’s Office of Employment and Training in Chicago, where he worked until he suffered another heart attack last January.
Smith spent several months in and out of hospitals and finally decided to buy another bookstore. But burglars stole the money he had taken out of the bank for the purchase.
The one-time candidate sees some comparisons between the ’50s and ’80s. ″The 1950s was called the silent generation,″ Smith said. ″People had nothing to say. Kids today are afraid to even look at a book of philosophy. I think they’re afraid they won’t get a job. We’ve come full circle.″
Smith’s troubles may have slowed his pace, but they haven’t dulled his activist spirit. For his next effort, he said, ″I think I’m gonna have to organize the old people.″