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Bert Smith, the man whose sprawling surplus store was a fixture in northern Utah and who himself was a devout constitutional conservative and a mainstay in Republican political circles, will be buried Saturday. He died March 31 at the age of 95.
Smith and his business partner, Lawrence Edwards, met while serving in the Pacific during World War II, and when the war ended, the two sold surplus military equipment out of Smith's backyard.
They became known as the "Country Boys" and eventually opened a warehouse store in Ogden that later moved to a sprawling site just west of Interstate 15.
Their motto, "We have anything you want … If we can find it," epitomized the vastness of the collection of surplus military and hunting equipment, sporting goods, camping supplies and often just junk that had been hoarded over acres and acres of land.
Smith and Edwards parted ways in 1962 when Smith bought up a ridiculous number 13,418 to be exact of huge navy mooring buoys, each nearly six feet in diameter and weighing almost 600 pounds. Edwards thought the purchase was "too wild," and they separated the business.
It was in the 1970s that Smith began to delve into studying the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers. He became friends with Cleon Skousen, the Mormon author of "The Five Thousand Year Leap" and other works that view the origins of the country through a religious and politically conservative lens.
"[Bert] was very principled and believed very strongly in the Constitution of the United States," said former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, who met Smith when Hansen was speaker of the Utah House. "Bert was as smart on the Constitution of the United States and as well-informed as anyone I'd ever met."
Smith and Skousen co-founded the Freeman Institute in 1971 to teach constitutional concepts from Skousen's anti-communist, faith-based perspective. Today it is known as the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
More recently, Smith helped bankroll the American Lands Council and the movement to have Utah claim ownership of tens of millions of acres of federal lands within Utah's borders. In April 2012, Smith, who was branded "Mr. Sagebrush Rebellion" by one publication, posted on the blog of Nevada rancher and anti-government firebrand Cliven Bundy that Bundy is "a hero of the range livestock operator on the public land."
Smith has also been active in Utah politics, holding counsel with senators, governors, congressmen and others. He has also been a major financial backer of the Utah Republican Party and its candidates.
"I was fortunate enough early on in my political career to sit across from him and relish the opportunity to be a student of the Constitution and a student of our forefathers and who they were and what they stood for," said Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden. "He could walk you through every one of the people who signed the Declaration [of Independence], and he could walk you through the meaning of every word of the Constitution, and he was a patriot."
Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said that when he was considering running for the Legislature about 16 years ago, Jenkins got to know Smith; he gave him advice and financial support along the way. Smith would order "truckloads" of pocket Constitutions and give them out to anyone who wanted them or candidates who needed them.
"When it came to the Constitution, he truly believed it was inspired and he was heavily involved in preaching it and teaching it," Jenkins said.
Hansen said he and Smith had "dozens of conversations about the fate of the United States," and Smith encouraged Hansen to run for Congress. Hansen introduced then-Gov. Norm Bangerter to Smith and said the two old farm boys were a perfect match.
Smith was born April 29, 1920, in Holbrook, Idaho, where the family ran a general store until 1928, when they moved to Ogden to get into the livestock business just before the Great Depression. Smith got into the hauling business at age 16 and bought his own truck.
He met Amelia Shaw at Weber High School, and they married in 1941. Their first daughter, Sherma, was born a year later. In 1944, Smith was drafted and sold his trucking company. According to the family obituary, "Bert said he spent the rest of his life trying to get even with FDR for making him sell his trucking business and leave Amelia and little Sherma behind."
Smith bought a ranch in the Ruby Valley in Nevada, which is still run by his brother Paul.
"He was quite a cowboy," Hansen said. "He liked to be called Bert 'Nevada' Smith. Only his best buddies could call him that."
Amelia died in 2004 on her 84th birthday. A year later, a friend, Kathy Hyde, whom Smith had recruited to the Freeman Institute, ran for Layton City Council, and Smith supported her campaign. The two married in 2006.
Today, Smith's grandson Craig Smith runs Smith and Edwards, with its 100-plus employees and seemingly endless rows of merchandise.
"He was just a natural salesman," said Hansen, the former congressman. "I felt like saying, 'Bert, why the heck did you buy that?' and then he'd think of something to do with it and when customers would come in, he'd have some story about how they could use the item. He sold millions of dollars worth of that stuff, and it was his fertile imagination that really put the thing together."
Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at the Mound Fort Stake Center, 373 15th St., in Ogden with a viewing beginning at 9:30 a.m.