Saturday, August 16, 2008


Modesto Says Good-Bye to A Favorite Son, Chester Smith

A memorial service for Chester was held at the Calvary Temple in Modesto, California on Saturday, August 16, 2008. Pastor Joe Wright officiated over the service and included testimony by Chester's friends Ronnie Svenhardt and the Rev. B. J. Robinson. We attended this service.

About 500 people showed up, many near Chester's age - a recognition of those from his generation who knew him through the years and quite a few of the younger generation as well. Mr. Wright told of a story about Chester's early life in his family. Chester was the youngest of six children in the family. His mother was a religious person and wanted to instill that same spirit in her children so they, too, would be saved.

Chester took to music at an early age, learning to play the guitar and singing. His mother told him, perhaps prophetically, "You won't amount to anything unless you sing about Jesus." Perhaps it is fitting that his biggest hit was "Wait A Little Longer, Please Jesus", a tune that has been recorded by over 100 artists.

The Herb Henry Family singers then did one of Chester's favorite gospel tunes, "Uncloudy Day", getting the crowd to clap along with their harmonious rendition that is typical of the traditional country music format.

Next up to the dais was Ronnie Svenhardt, a long-time friend of Chester's. He talked of knowing Chester as a Christian business man. He knew him as an astute 'negotiator', remembering that Chester once mentioned he always felt he left something on the table when he wrapped up a deal.

Ronnie spoke of the religious nature that Chester carried with him, citing the quote we saw in his memorial program, "In the world we are driven, but in the spirit we are led." He noted that Chester was now in a place where there is " more pain, no more sorrow."

We learned from Pastor Wright that Chester was offed a movie contract, offered a job if he moved to Nashville. But Chester was a driven person in one regard, he wanted to be the master of his destiny. He never collected a paycheck from anyone - he supported himself and through his thriving businesses, wrote the paycheck for others.

He owned the first country music radio station in northern California.

He then moved into television. Mention was made during the services more than once and in news stories at the time of his death of starting a string of Spanish language television stations. They noted he saw a lot in common with the migrant workers he saw in the farm fields in California to the folks who toiled the fields in Oklahoma before the dust bowl era. It may be the stations were Spanish-speaking, but in another sense, he was providing a bit of relief and entertainment to those folks who were doing the hard labor, a chance to relax and forget their aches and pains from a long day of labor.

He eventually sold those stations to Univision.

The Herb Henry Family Singers then did another of Chester's favorites, the old Hank Williams standard, "I Saw The Light". Pastor Wright noted after that tune, when that song first came out - it resonated with many because they needed to hear that message.

The Rev. B. J. Robinson came to the dais and spoke fondly of his times with Chester. He noted long ago that he had noticed that Chester was kind of sad at one point, perhaps depressed. But when he saw him a few weeks later, he was glowing, smiling and quite a changed person. When asked what caused this change, Chester just smiled and said, "I"m in love." Was it the love for his first wife? Or was it that he had found another calling in his life?

We then got to hear Chester's version of "Wings of A Dove", which included a bit of a recitation piece between verses pointing out the significance of the 'dove' and it's uniqueness.

We learned how Calvary Temple acquired the property it was currently on. It seems that because of Chester's association with the radio station that owned the property at the time (perhaps this was KTRB), that if the station ever decided to sell the property, they had to sell it to the church. But the church was not that well off back then when they were approached about the sale of the land. They asked the church - how much will you pay? And they gave their amount. And then they asked, how do want to pay for this? They told them they'd pay about $10,000 first. Then asked if they could wait another five years before beginning to pay the rest. The deal was made.

A video tribute was a welcome treat during this service. We got to see Chester perform a bit. During a Grand Ole Opry anniversary celebration, Merle Haggard introduced Chester to the Opry audience so they could do a duet on his tune, "Wait A Little Longer, Please Jesus". Chester wryly noted that it had taken him 40 years to finally get to sing on that stage where his idols such as Roy Acuff had performed.

Another snippet included Chester doing a tune as part of a FOX network tour of sorts for Fox affiliates. It had an American Idol background, Ryan Secrest, host of the popular show, introduce Chester to the audience who did one of his tunes as he could only do. Chester seemed to have this way of holding his guitar aloft and picking an instrumental interlude between verses.

We got to see him do a seemingly recent studio session caught on tape, an interview that allowed him to talk about his life briefly, then we got to hear him and his wife do a nice duet number together, "Let's Be Young Again".

Finally, the lights came back up and we got to hear Chester and Merle do one more time, Chester's classic tune.

It was said that Chester was happy during his last days, unafraid of death, knowing that he would be in a better place. It was said that he was the lucky one - he had beat us there and was waiting.

We drove home after the service listening to our copy of Chester and Merle singing the Roy Acuff classic, "Wreck on the Highway"...

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