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Bits and Pieces: Print Requiem For Mark Smith

March 2013 By Erik Cagle

It's been more than a month since he passed away, yet I still expect to see our technology editor, Mark Smith, pop his head over the partition wall to make an irreverent observation about someone or something. He's always been just a stretch of the legs away from casual conversation. Yet, after 13 years of sharing a common space with the man, I'm afraid I knew very little about him.

Mark, who died Jan. 21 of mouth cancer at age 51, was an intensely private man. For all I know, he jetted off to Monte Carlo now and then for a weekend jaunt. This is not true, however, because the security man at the downstairs front desk of NAPCO's building logged him coming in on more than a few Saturdays. Not to mention Sundays. Some mornings, I'd beat him into the office by a half-hour. He'd promptly stay at his post two hours after I'd departed for the night.

How do you sit next to someone for years and know very little about him? I'm culling memories from here and there, but it makes for an incomplete portrayal, like unrelated puzzle pieces with large portions of the overall picture absent.

My headline here is meant to be ironic. This effort is anything but lyrical. It is both difficult and necessary. I'd like to think that, after I grimace and fall for the final time, the person sitting on the other side of my cubicle would have specific, happy memories to ponder. I owe it to Mark to tell you his story, even though the thought of doing so would make him wince.

Mark Smith could be a tough guy to deal with, and as the cancer continued to wear him down during the past six months, tolerating his irascible side wasn't easy. That the cancer impacted his speech only compounded communication issues. He deserves a pass on those final six months. I'd hate to think how tough it would be to put up with me under the same circumstances. But he came to work virtually every day. Mark wasn't about to let dying interfere with his day-to-day activities.

Want to know something about Mark? He was pretty damn intelligent. He knew our editing and publishing systems inside and out. I treated him like a human search engine, as if he had the answer to everything. More often than not, he either had the answer or could supply it in short order after a little research.

He didn't suffer fools lightly, and now and then he would remind me that the simple answer could be found with a little effort on my part. Mark was right, but he made it awfully easy to just blurt out questions. I'd like to think he was a little flattered by being treated as an encyclopedia. Annoyed, but flattered.

Mark had a competitive side that he almost never flashed, with one memorable exception. I am in charge of the "PI Weekly" e-newsletter, while he edited the daily edition. Our views on what constituted industry news sometimes clashed. I have a newspaper background, so I never hesitated to run items about crime, fires, deaths—briefs that would typically appear in your hometown paper, not a B2B trade magazine. He wanted to run a publicly-held printer's or press manufacturer's quarterly reports. He despised anything that smacked of salacious news.

On one Friday, while running behind on getting out the weekly newsletter, I inadvertently typed "PI World" (the daily newsletter) as the header in the e-mail subject line instead of the proper "PI Weekly", and 30,000+ readers were left to wonder which newsletter they had actually received. Shortly after the newsletter went out and my gaffe was noted, Mark peered over the cubicle with narrow eyes and uttered, "You wish," as if I had subconsciously wanted to be doing the daily newsletter. We both had a hearty laugh.

Near the end, my curiosity about his condition was met with silence. We'd always shook hands before leaving on Christmas holiday but, this time, he wasn't at his desk. So I penned him a "Merry Christmas, feel better soon" e-mail. It was his last Yuletide; he knew it and wasn't about to give in to sentimentality.

The final three weeks, he was but a shadow of his former self, and the intensely private man stopped communicating altogether. He was resigned to dying, and it was something he was going to experience by himself. Mark collapsed in the lobby of his apartment building, all alone, and was dead on arrival at the hospital.

I mention this as the thought of anyone dying alone and lonely, by choice or not, is tough to reconcile. And so I offer this little account of Mark's life, fractured and incomplete though it may be, as the hug I'd dare not offer to a person who would not wish for it. Rest in peace.

GIVING BACK: Patrick Bolan, Stephen McWilliam and Peter Funnell, graduates of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, were friends in school who united a few years later, in 2004, to acquire Avanti Computer Systems.

The company is known in the printing industry for its MIS, Web-to-print and digital printing workflow software solutions. And, as a show of affinity for the school that united them as friends and, ultimately, a cracker jack business team, the trio announced last November that it was donating $75,000 to Waterloo University. PI


 

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