More than 800 people gathered at the Croatian Cultural Centre Monday to pay tribute to a one-of-a-kind former Vancouver cop who died earlier this month at 89 of cancer.
Bernie “Whistling” Smith, who earned the nickname for regularly whistling on his Downtown Eastside beat, was remembered in story, in video and in song — including one of his own — during the afternoon ceremony.
Though more widely known by many as the burly lawman featured in the 1975 National Film Board documentary “Whistling Smith,” stories told by family and friends completed a picture of Smith’s life before and after his 34 years with the Vancouver Police Department.
Koos Dykstra, who served on the force with Smith, recalled that his friend grew up in what is now Yaletown before leaving in his early teens.
Smith stowed away on trains to the Prairies during the Depression, lived in “hobo jungles” and hitchhiked around the province searching for work.
“He came from very poor beginnings and never enjoyed an excess of wealth, “Dykstra told the crowd. “But seeing the assembly here, he was rich beyond what he could have imagined.”
Smith’s son, Larry, also a retired VPD cop, said his father’s decision to enlist in the army and serve overseas during the Second World War was considered an improvement to his life. He landed in Normandy three days after the D-Day invasion.
His early experiences, Smith said, helped shape the values of the father and grandfather he became when returning from the war and joining the VPD in 1945.
“There was always a place at our table for a person who was down on their luck or in need,” his son said.
The day Smith received his discharge papers from the army, he applied to work at the VPD. His persistence, despite no openings, got him a job at 22 years old.
In his unpublished autobiography “Colour Me Blue,” he tells of saving a drowning man at the foot of Dunlevy Street, how his first partner Gordon Sinclair was shot under the Granville Bridge and how he led detectives to two men who murdered a teenage girl in Stanley Park.
Former partner Don Bullough revealed to the crowd that Smith had a $10,000 contract on his head and often mixed it up with local gangsters.
“He was feared by the underworld,” said Bullough in his English accent, recalling how Smith often sat with gangsters’ girlfriends in nightclubs to upset the men. “They couldn’t talk, they couldn’t do nothing. But that was how Bernie did it and he was just one hell of a good copper — a good partner and a good friend.”
When Smith retired in 1979, he worked at a series of jobs, including private investigator, security guard, stock promoter, failed political candidate and aide to former premier Bill Vander Zalm, who spoke at the ceremony.
“He believed that whatever happened had to happen but that things would be better at the end of it—and it was,” said Vander Zalm, referring to his turbulent last year in office and the conflict-of-interest probe into the sale of Fantasy Gardens that caused him to resign in 1991. “So Bernie will always be remembered by Lillian and myself and family as one of the greatest guys we ever came to know.”
In his later years, Smith turned to writing a detective novel, his autobiography and children’s books, one of which titled “Windy and Spike, “about a skunk and a porcupine, he self-published with his late wife, Mary.
He told the Courier in an interview in 2004 the inspiration for his children’s books were his love of children and family.
Taylum McErlean, 19, Smith’s first great grandaughter, said she didn’t know the man as a cop or political aide but simply as her great grandpa.
She told of how his whistling could get on her great grandmother’s nerves (“Bernard—stop that!) and how he would take out his false teeth “to freak out the kids.”
“He never stopped smiling, never stopped being positive,” she said.
During the ceremony, the crowd heard from Smith himself, albeit via a video recording made earlier this year of a song he wrote with musical accompaniment from The Odds and Jim Byrnes.
Over long-held, subtle notes on an organ, Smith comes across Johnny Cash-like in his baritone voice and simple delivery of “The Thin Blue Line.”
He was blind at the time but still able to whistle.
Smith is survived by his four children, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Donations can be made in his name to The Union Gospel Mission.