Longtime Jackson County Sheriff and county Commissioner Dennis “C.W.” Smith has died.
The 71-year-old died Sunday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, friends confirmed.
Smith, who was born in Medford, raised in Central Point and served in a variety of public offices in Southern Oregon, was widely known in the Rogue Valley. His best-known role may have been his 12 years (1983 to 1995) as Jackson County sheriff. Under his leadership, the department implemented Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) and bolstered its Search and Rescue operations. He was recognized as Oregon’s Sheriff of the Year in 1989.
After retiring as sheriff and before being elected to a commissioner seat in 2004, Smith served as police chief for Talent and city manager for Lakeview. He was a Medford police officer before being elected sheriff and also served for a brief period as head of security for the Coquille Tribe in the Coos Bay area.
Current Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he met Smith, whom he described as “an extremely nice man,” as a Phoenix police officer when Smith was Talent’s police chief.
“He was very kind of charismatic, very fun, always kinda had a way of lightening things up but also being professional at the same time, if that makes sense,” Sickler said.
“Whatever he chose to do, he left a positive impact on that agency,” he said.
Former Medford Police Chief Tim George took charge of the city department after Smith left the Sheriff’s Office, but remembered him as someone “committed to public service, even after his sheriff days.”
“I always thought that C.W. was trying to do the right things for the right reasons,” George said. “Jackson County certainly benefited from C.W. being here.”
Mike Moran, who was also with the Medford department before becoming Talent police chief, remembers a lesson he learned when Smith was his training officer. The two were driving in Medford, he said, when Smith spotted some broken glass on the road from an earlier accident. He told Moran to pull over.
“I thought that wasn’t really a good use of our time,” recalled Moran, who retired as Talent’s chief in 2016 and now lives in Bend. “But he said, ‘No, it’s important.’ It made a good impression on me — it’s not all about chasing bad guys down the street and shooting guns.”
Smith was also an artist, producing bronze sculptures, primarily of western themes. His own ambitions to become an art teacher were disrupted by the war in Vietnam, he told the Mail Tribune in 2012.
Smith’s quick wit and homespun humor made him a popular emcee for local fundraising events and as a public speaker. That wit also served him well during a stint as a radio talk show host with Rosemary Harrington in the late 1990s.
“He was a fun partner on the radio,” Harrington recalled. "I never laughed so much or learned so much.”
However, she remembered, the early morning time slot could be a challenge for him.
“He’d show up late every day,” she said with a laugh, “and then sit there and read the paper for a half-hour. Then for the next two hours he would be eloquent, funny and infectious with his laughter and insight.”
“He was the sweetest man.”
Smith was unsuccessful in a congressional race and a state Senate election. But he faced down a number of political opponents in other elections, winning three sheriff’s elections and sitting on the county Board of Commissioners both before and after the 2008 recession. He defeated Democratic candidate Sue Densmore for the commissioner’s seat in 2004 and as an incumbent withstood Jim Olney’s challenge four years later. Smith decided not to run again 2012.
In his non-public life, he worked in private insurance and managed a family farm. An Air Force veteran, he and his wife, Gina, had three children.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay. Bob Hunter contributed to this story.