Harry Leslie Smith, the British-born Second World War veteran who launched a late-in-life career as a political commentator, author and podcast star and, most recently, captured the world’s attention on Twitter after suffering complications from a fall, has died. He was 95.
Smith, who’d moved his family to Canada following the Second World War and kept a home in Ontario for the rest of his life, died in the Belleville, Ont., hospital where he’d been receiving treatment since his fall on Nov. 20. His son, John, tweeted the news via his father’s Twitter account, where he’d updated well-wishers on his father’s health struggles as he kept vigil over him for the last eight days.
“At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan,” he wrote earlier this morning, ending with the hashtag #IStandWithHarry, which had become the rally cry of supporters on the social networking site. About an hour later John added, “I am back home to our home and I alone. It is 4:36 in the morning and I am wrapped in the blanket that covered him as he lay dying. And, I know exactly what my steps are. I will follow in his footsteps. I will endeavour to finish his projects. I want to see his two self-published books 1923 and the Empress of Australia find a publisher so that more people will read about my dad’s early days.”
He also offered a glimpse into his father’s final hours, noting, “My dad had been so dreadfully thirsty because he’d had nil by mouth orders for almost a week. So when he decided that the potential for full recovery was not possible, he was allowed to drink a beer. Sadly though he couldn’t eat.”
Smith himself once wrote in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that, “For me, old age has been a renaissance despite the tragedies of losing my beloved wife and son. It’s why the greatest error anyone can make is to assume that, because an elderly person is in a wheelchair or speaks with quiet deliberation, they have nothing important to contribute to society. It is equally important not to say to yourself if you are in the bloom of youth: ‘I’d rather be dead than live like that.’ As long as there is sentience and an ability to love and show love, there is purpose to existence.”
Born in England in 1923, Harry Leslie Smith grew up in Depression-era England and served with the RAF during the Second World War before emigrating with his family to Ontario in the 1950s, where he made a career of selling Oriental rugs to prominent clients from business magnates to former Prime Ministers. In 1999, however, Smith’s wife Friede passed away from cancer and, a decade later, he lost his son Peter to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
It was then, at age 86, that Smith chose to pen the first of three autobiographical, self-published books, Love among the ruins (2009), a memoir about meeting his wife Friede in the charred remains of Hamburg, Germany in 1945. Two more followed – 1923: A Memoir (2011), about his early life of poverty in England, and The Empress of Australia: A Post-War Memoir (2012), about the struggles of returning to England and resuming life after the war. A liberal-minded progressive thinker, he also began a second career as a respected political commentator by writing on politics and history for various British publications, as well as taking on speaking engagements and becoming a staunch anti-poverty advocate.
The BBC notes that, ” Mr. Smith divided his time between Yorkshire and Canada and spent time meeting with refugees from around the world and advocating on their behalf. He rose to prominence after giving an impassioned speech about his life and the NHS [a Department of Health body] at the Labour Party conference in 2014. After a speech which moved some delegates to tears, he was greeted with a standing ovation and widely praised on social media after warning the UK must ‘be vigilant’ about the NHS.”
Smith wrote two more books – Harry’s Last Stand (2015) and Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future: A Call to Arms (2018), both of which tackle ideas and solutions for improving the world for future generations while battling political tyranny and the degradation of public healthcare and other institutions. As well, he hosts a popular podcast that deals with similar issues, and boasts nearly 250,000 Twitter followers.