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Family unity is top priority for new senator from Oregon

On a chilly, clear day in January 1961, 8-year-old Gordon Harold Smith stood among the throngs in Washington, D.C., attending the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

"I remember our family being positioned during the inaugural parade right across the street from John and Jackie [First Lady Jacqueline] Kennedy," he recalled. The same day, standing with his family, the young boy listened as the new president gave the clarion call, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.""I felt like I was a part of a new generation of Americans to whom he was speaking," the now 44-year-old Gordon Smith recalled.

The words of the man known as "JFK" rang true to the youngster. At 12 years old, he got a job sweeping floors at Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign headquarters. Today, he is serving as a United States senator, representing Oregon. He was sworn in Jan. 7.

Brother Smith of the Pendleton 1st Ward, Walla Walla Washington Stake, comes from a tradition of public service. His father, Milan Dale Smith, was executive assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson during the Eisenhower administration. His mother, Jessica Udall Smith, is a cousin to Stewart Udall, who was Secretary of the Interior for President Kennedy.

"My family cultivated an ethic of public service - `If you've been given much, you should give back,' " Sen. Smith noted. Ethics will, indeed, be a guiding star for the Republican senator, "one whose priorities are fixed upon his family and on helping to foster the kind of society that makes room for everyone," he explained.

"One of the things you learn in your earliest days as a Latter-day Saint is that you are accountable first for yourself and then for others. There's no room for blame. When you get knocked down, you get up and keep trying and endure to the end.

"I know what it's like to get knocked down, both in business and in politics and in life. You don't lose until you quit."

The new senator learned about endurance early in life from his parents. Born May 25, 1952, in Pendleton, Ore., he was only 2 years old when his father accepted the Washington, D.C. assignment. At the time, Sen. Smith's parents operated a family canning business in Pendleton and were among those instrumental in the Church's growth in eastern Oregon. His father was the first bishop in Pendleton.

But, heeding Elder Benson's request, Sen. Smith's father moved his family to the nation's capital, where he later served as president of the Washington D.C. Stake. Thus, young Gordon spent his childhood and youth in Washington, D.C., witnessing the historical events of the 1960s.

"Living in Washington, D.C., through the tumult of assassinations and civil rights strife and Vietnam protests was a fascinating experience that molded my life in very significant ways," he recalled. His parents, he explained, were pivotal in his life. "I honored and obeyed them and through that I found safety in a tumultuous time. While I followed carefully all the issues of my generation, I was able to live apart from its pitfalls. While others were turning to drugs and engaging in protests, I was earning my Eagle Scout badge."

In 1968, ground was broken for the Washington Temple. "I remember how important the building of the temple was to the Saints of the Washington area. They worked together and raised money. As the temple began to rise, I left for my mission," Brother Smith related.

From 1971 to 1973, he served in the New Zealand North Mission where he spent 11 months as assistant to the president. "Hardly a day goes by in my life that I don't draw from the well of my mission experience some valuable insight or ability. I remember coming to know the 121st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants as a manual for righteous leadership."

Upon returning home, he began studying history, with an English minor, at BYU. A chance meeting at the "Cougar Eat" in the Wilkinson Center on campus changed his life. He met Sharon Lankford - his future wife. "I fell in love with her the first time I saw her; that was with the heart, and then with the brain when I realized what a remarkable human being, what a capable person, she was."

He explained that his wife was reared in Los Angeles, Calif., the daughter of a police officer. "Her mother died when she was fairly young, so Sharon was really the mother of her family in helping to rear her younger sister. She is really a bootstrap story in her own right because she got into BYU and made her way through school."

The young couple married in the Washington Temple June 6, 1975. Sister Smith had graduated in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in English education and taught school while her husband completed his bachelor's degree. After his 1976 graduation, they moved to Los Angeles, where he earned a law degree from Southwestern University in 1979. From there, they moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he worked as a law clerk for Justice H. Vern Payne of the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Then, after briefly practicing law in Arizona in the early 1980s, Brother Smith bought back the family canning business in Pendleton, which today produces about 15 percent of America's frozen peas, corn and carrots. Brother and Sister Smith and their family have lived in Pendleton since purchasing the business.

Of their three children, Brittany Anne, 17; Garrett Lee, 15; and Morgan Spencer, 8, Sen. Smith said, "We're a family put together in heaven and we found each other on earth." Brother and Sister Smith adopted their first two children through LDS Social Services and their third through a doctor in Pendleton.

The 6-foot-2 senator, with slightly graying hair, explained: "We as a family determined that we would let our story be known. We are a family that shows a wonderful alternative for unwed mothers. And that is adoption."

The Smiths have also continued the family legacy of Church service. In 1987, Brother Smith was called as bishop of the Pendleton 1st Ward, the same ward his father presided over in the early 1950s. Soon after the calling was issued, Brother Smith's father died. "It was a source of great satisfaction for him to see my being called to be the bishop of the same ward," the senator said. Of his Church experiences, Brother Smith said, "I've held probably every calling between a stake high council and a home teacher and they were all wonderful."

The senator-to-be's first government position was on the city budget committee in Pendleton. Then, in 1992, he ran for the state Senate and won. During his first term, he was elected president of the Oregon Senate. His first national campaign came in the winter of 1995 and 1996 during a special election for a U.S. Senate seat. He won his party's nomination and lost the general election by less than 1 percent.

His decision to run again so soon was a difficult one for the family, but after receiving the encouragement of friends and loved ones, Brother Smith, with his wife by his side, entered the campaign trail once again. He won the election Nov. 3 by 4 percent.

Sister Smith, the senator emphasized, was "my secret weapon. While she did not seek out opportunities to campaign, she would always respond when my staff asked her to participate or go somewhere in Oregon to represent me. The problem we had as a family is that we live in eastern Oregon, while most of the people live in western Oregon."

While facing the strain of the campaign trail, Brother Smith worked hard to maintain his relationships with his children. He called home every day and made special efforts to be there for specific activities. For example, two weeks before the general election, Garrett called his dad. "You've got to make at least one of my football games this season," the boy told his father. Brother Smith responded by chartering a plane to Kennewick, Wash., where his son's final game was played. "I'm glad I did," Brother Smith said, "because I got to see him play and win, and that's a memory that is all the more special because we had to work so hard to make it.

"My own father was a very busy man," he explained, "but I remember him taking extra measures to be there on occasions and they are terrific memories for me. Parents are pulled every which way in this modern society. To be there for our children sometimes takes super human efforts, but we need to make those efforts."

The Smiths will continue putting family unity as their top priority, despite the busy schedule of Sen. Smith, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Budget Committee. "What we have already done in hiring a staff is to make sure they know that Sharon has first claim on my schedule. We will divert time to be a family.

"I'm not going to the Senate to lose my family," Sen. Smith emphasized. "After this school year is completed, Sharon will be moving to Washington, D.C., and we will then find a house - and make it a home."

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