After fighting relentlessly for sportsmen as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for 18 years, George Smith spent much of his time in recent years writing about the outdoors.

George A. Smith, the pioneering Maine outdoorsman who was director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for nearly two decades and a prolific writer of outdoor activities, travel and legislative issues, died Friday night following a yearslong diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 72.

Smith, of Mount Vernon, wrote monthly columns for The Maine Sportsman magazine and a weekly editorial-page columns for the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and features for the Portland Press Herald and many other state publications. In 2014, Islandport Press published his book of columns about Maine, “A Life Lived Outdoors.”

“George loved Maine. And Maine loved George,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement Saturday morning. “I am deeply saddened by his passing. An avid sportsman, a prolific writer, and a good-natured friend to all, George Smith was the very embodiment of the character of Maine: strong but kind, independent but compassionate, wise but humble. His decades-long advocacy on behalf of conservation contributed to the preservation and protection of forests, lakes, and streams across our state that now will be enjoyed by untold generations to come.”

Smith is survived by his wife of 41 years, Linda; daughter and son-in-law Rebekah Smith and Patrick Mellor of Union; son and daughter-in-law Josh and Kelly Smith of Bridgewater, Massachusetts; and daughter and partner Hilary Smith and Flavio Sanchez of Washington, D.C. He is also survived by brother and sister-in-law Gordon and Janet Smith of Winthrop, and a sister, Edie Smith of Glenburn.

“His passion for Maine and outdoors and Maine people was surpassed only by his love of being a grandparent,” Rebekah Smith said on Saturday morning. “His first question to me was always, ‘How are the boys?’ Meaning my children.”

Smith grew up in the Kennebec County town of Winthrop and had lived in Mount Vernon for the last 42 years. According to his family, he was in recent years happiest in the role of “Grampy” as he cheered at soccer games or hung up artwork. He wrote four books and hundreds of newspaper columns, with most topics ranging from hunting, fishing, current events, and food and travel.

George Smith, then-executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, holds a 30-pound male Atlantic salmon he caught during a media day trip to salmon pens owned by Fjord Seafood USA off the shores of Bernard in 2002. Smith, 72, died Friday following a diagnosis for ALS. John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald file

George and Linda Smith loved to travel, especially in Maine, and for many years they jointly wrote a “Travelin’ Maine(rs)” column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel about their exploits. Their favorite spots included their cabin outside Baxter State Park, West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, and Italy.

Smith also loved singing in his church choir at Readfield United Methodist church, bird watching, and craft-brewed beer.

Smith had been in a wheelchair after losing strength in his limbs because of ALS, a disease that he spoke and wrote extensively about since his diagnosis in 2017.

George Smith takes a moment to prepare with Jodie Mosher-Towle on May 14, 2019, before taking part in a Community Voices session at the Ostrove Auditorium at Colby College in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel, file

During a live Community Voices event in 2019 before an audience, Smith took to the stage in his wheelchair and recalled a number of stories, including how he once accidentally stabbed himself in the hand after shooting a deer in the woods and was preparing to the dress out the animal. He raced back home with the bleeding hand, leaving a note for his wife to not worry about the blood all over the kitchen, before getting to the hospital for stitches.

Tom Ward of Mount Vernon, who served with him on the town appeals board, said Smith notably was brave and vital as he dealt with his ALS diagnosis.

“His mind was still fierce, right up close to the end,” Ward said.

Gordon Smith, George’s brother and the state director of opioid response, said the family had four years to prepare for George’s death following the ALS diagnosis, but the end came “with such stunning quickness.”

“A week ago he was zooming in his wheelchair and he started to decline,” Gordon Smith said. “It’s a blessing he didn’t suffer anymore. He handled it well and went with grace and without pain. He leaves quite a legacy.”

Sen. Angus King and his wife, Mary Herman, celebrated Smith’s toughness, smarts, writing skills and love of nature in a statement on Saturday.

“I loved George Smith,” King said. “He spent his life exploring the Maine outdoors – and if you asked him, there was no better way to live. That is why George used every tool at his disposal to share these natural treasures with millions. As a prolific and talented writer, George’s tales of adventure encouraged countless Maine people to take a walk in the woods; as a dogged advocate and natural leader, he spent decades supporting conservation efforts to make public lands more accessible for everyone. He was tough, smart, and deeply determined to protect the boundless beauty of Maine. Nature speaks a language of its own – one that George spoke fluently, with joy in his heart.

“Mary and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend, and our hearts break for his family. Though George is gone, I hope all who loved him can take comfort in the fact that his legacy is all around us – from the adventurers he inspired to the lands he protected, his impact will live on for generations. The next time I’m stopped in my tracks by a beautiful Maine landscape, I’ll be thinking of George – who never lost his sense of wonder, and never stopped trying to share it with others.”

George Smith shakes hands with University of Maine at Augusta President Rebecca Wyke after receiving the Distinguished Achievement Award on May 11, 2019, during UMA’s commencement ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

In a statement Saturday, Sen. Susan Collins said Smith “built a proud and enduring legacy of conservation” during his years leading the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

His “life was defined by his love for the Maine outdoors and his dedication to preserving this integral part of our heritage,” she said. “The courage he showed as he dealt with the devastating impacts of ALS only furthered my admiration for him.”

Collins added: “George’s passion for hiking, hunting, fishing, and nature was eloquently expressed in his columns. His writings reflected his reverence for the beauty of every corner of Maine, gave a voice to the experiences of countless other sportsmen, and sparked a renewed appreciation for our state among his readers.”

David Trahan, who’s been director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for the past 10 years, said he had a longtime friendship with Smith that started while Trahan was a legislator and Smith led the alliance. Smith was among the most influential people in state politics during his tenure, developing key partnerships with organizations and enduring programs.

Trahan cited the Land for Maine’s Future Program and Maine Outdoors Heritage Fund as landmark projects that have created a foundation for outdoors conservation in the state.

“I consider those two programs to be two of the most popular programs in the state. When people go to the beach to enjoy access, or to public lands, he had a role in making those things happen,” Trahan said.

George Smith, then-executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, is seen in 1996. Smith, 72, died Friday following a diagnosis for ALS. Portland Press Herald file

Smith was so effective because he was a “tenacious and relentless” advocate for outdoors policy while director of the sportsman’s alliance, Trahan said. After leaving the alliance, Trahan said, Smith continued making his mark as a skilled writer and guest on state wildlife shows, all the while capturing attention and interest in the outdoors.

“For me, I consider him charming. When I would go to (Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine) show, George was like a celebrity. He would work the entire room,” Trahan said.

And Smith was so convincing as an advocate and communicator because he based it all on lived experience – whether it was hunting, fishing or other recreation.

“Some folks out there, they try to share an experience without actually being part of it. When George wrote about hunting and fishing, he did it and he did it well. It came from experience. There’s no replacement for it,” Trahan said, adding that Smith’s enduring message to him is: “If you believe in something, fight for it. Don’t back down from your beliefs. And it happened to be the outdoors were his passion.”

The Natural Resources Council of Maine hailed Smith in a statement on Saturday.

“George was one of Maine’s greatest conservationists and most passionate outdoorsmen,” said the council’s CEO, Lisa Pohlmann. “He leaves an enormous legacy of using his humor, powerful words, and deep experience in the outdoors to protect Maine’s woods, waters, and wildlife for future generations. Always humble and willing to do the right thing for Maine’s environment, George forever changed Maine for the better. He was a dear friend of NRCM’s and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his family in this difficult time.”

Rebekah Smith also recalled recently how her 14-year-old wrote a note to his grandfather, explaining how his speeches had inspired the teenager to speak out about issues.

“I think his role-modeling of speaking out for what you believe in – while also forging friendships, even with whom you disagree – was exceptional role-modeling for everyone,” Rebekah Smith said.

The family said that a private gathering service is planned and a public celebration may be held following the coronavirus pandemic.

Scott Monroe is managing editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Press Herald Staff Writer Rob Wolfe contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 11 a.m. on Feb. 14 to correct the year George Smith received his ALS diagnosis.

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