The RV stood in the same downtown Minneapolis parking lot, day in and day out, never moving.
Don Novatney could see it from the building where he worked and wondered if someone was living inside. He hoped not — it was deep winter and frigid cold.
Then, one Sunday, he read a newspaper story about a World War II veteran living in an unheated RV.
“I drove over there and knocked on his door and asked him if he was the person in that article,” Novatney recalled. “And he said yes.”
Shortly after, the man, Ed Smith, also caught the attention of the VA. He soon started receiving enough benefits to move out of the RV, and he lived the rest of his life in an apartment building for seniors in Minneapolis.
Smith died July 25 at age 92. Those who knew him describe a man whose life was colored by tragedy from the beginning, but punctuated until the end by moments of grace.
“He didn’t really have anybody most of his life,” Novatney said. “He just wanted somebody to know his story.”
Edward Joseph Smith was born Aug. 6, 1925, in Elbow Lake, Minn. to Joseph and Florence Smith. His father left when he was a boy. His mother was ostracized by her family for having a child with Joseph, who was American Indian, and eventually sent Ed to live in an orphanage.
At 17, Smith joined the Navy and fought in the Pacific as a helmsman on the USS Burns. In Okinawa, he told Novatney, a Japanese plane aimed to hit the ship and missed, barreling instead toward the ocean. As the plane went down, Smith was close enough to lock eyes with the pilot.
When Smith returned from the war, he told Novatney, his mother told him that she could’ve collected his life insurance if he’d been killed.
Smith lived for a time on the streets of New York and Chicago, drinking a lot and ending up in the workhouse. Decades later, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
It’s unclear how Smith made it back to Minnesota. He was married for several years but had no children. (He told the late Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman that he “hated every minute” of the marriage.)
Smith worked manual labor jobs and eventually ended up in subsidized senior housing. But after disagreements with other residents, he moved to a trailer park, where he found an RV for sale. He used all of his savings to buy it, thinking it would give him and his therapy dog, Puffy, some freedom. But the RV, it turned out, didn’t have working appliances, a working bathroom or heat.
With few options, Smith decided to rent a space in a parking lot. He was living there when the St. Stephen’s Human Services street outreach team met him.
Smith hadn’t wanted to stay in a shelter, because he wouldn’t be able to bring Puffy.
“He was adamant that he loved Puffy,” said Monica Nilsson, then the outreach director at St. Stephen’s. “We kind of secretly determined that we would give it a try to shelter them both.”
Smith was able to bring Puffy when he spent the night at St. Stephen’s. Later, with help from the organization and Novatney, he moved into an apartment. When Puffy died, Smith asked that the dog be cremated and the ashes tucked inside a stuffed animal that he could hold as he slept.
Smith has no known survivors. He left $100,000 that will go to St. Stephen’s. A service will be held at Fort Snelling National Cemetery at 10:45 a.m. Monday.
Novatney asked that readers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder be encouraged to seek help. Veterans can call 1-800-273-8255 or visit ptsd.va.gov.