Chesterton Tribune



50 years and 8,000 cars: Tom Smith retires from Connors

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In 1946 a WWII veteran named Bill Clay placed this want ad in the Chesterton Tribune classifieds: “Any old car, just so it runs and has four tires. A war veteran needs this car badly.”

A year later another vet, Jim Marshall, hoped his Tribune want ad would solve the same problem, only more economically: “Needs ride to Gary for the 4-12 shift.”

In ‘46 and ‘47 this sort of classified was running in every newspaper in the country, a sign of Americans’ clamoring demand for mobility, which was as much a precondition of postwar prosperity as it was a product of it. Veterans needed to get to their jobs in the demilitarized factories and emerging industries. And flush with their wages they could afford to buy a brand-new automobile that would get them to work in style. Get them, too, to their brand-new ranches and split-levels in suburbia.

Here in Chesterton the demand for mobility was met by a small cadre of dealers who were as hungry to sell as the commuters were to buy, for on Jan. 1, 1942, the Office of Production Management had frozen all civilian auto sales for the duration. Wouldn’t have mattered a bit if OPM hadn’t, though, as on Feb. 22, 1942, the automakers stopped making autos altogether and started making trucks, jeeps, tanks, and planes.

One of the dealers in town, Harry Smith, had had the Buick franchise for a generation, since 1911, when he and his father, Myron, started selling Model 10s and 32s by mail order out of their general store, M. Smith & Son, at 101 Broadway (the Antiques 101 that was).

At a time when many in Duneland still swore by the buggy whip, Myron and Harry were pioneers, which is fitting really, as Harry had married Anna, the granddaughter of Jesse Morgan, one of the first settlers of Westchester Township, and in doing so had united two families whose entrepreneurship and salesmanship did much to make Chesterton’s economy a going concern in the early years.

This isn’t their story, though. It’s the story of the one who came later and did his bit for the family, after the business-building was done, who had a chance to shake the dust of this little town off his feet but instead planted them firmly in his native soil.

Tom Smith

Ask a man who’s worked all his life what he’s done with his life.

Ask Tom Smith--Harry’s grandson, Myron’s great-grandson--who on the day after Thanksgiving retired from Connors Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, with 50 years of car-selling under his belt.

Were he less afflicted by modesty, Tom might say this: I sold people freedom of movement, which is freedom.

What he does say is this: “I fulfilled a need,” Tom says. “People need transportation. I sold people what they have to have and I sold a product I believe in.”

Yet it wasn’t perfectly clear to Tom, when he graduated CHS and went off to Franklin College, that he was going to follow his father, Harry’s son Dick, into the family business. It wasn’t even clear, when he was done with his schooling, that he was going to return to Chesterton.

Smith Motors

In 1947--the same year Jim Marshall put a want ad in the Tribune seeking a regular ride to the mill in Gary--Harry and Dick started Smith Motors at South Calumet and East Porter Ave., where Hopkins Small Engines is now. By that time the Smiths were selling Pontiacs and Chevrolets as well as Buicks and business was good. Duneland’s population was growing, new subdivisions like South Park Acres and Indian Trails were coming on line and being populated by young couples for whom a big part of the American Dream was Detroit Steel, and the Smiths had a showroom of drop-dead gorgeous land boats to choose from.

Tom’s interests, however, didn’t immediately run to commerce. The Fifties, after all, were the golden age not only of tail fins but of AM radio, and Tom was something of a tinkerer.

“I built a radio transmitter in high school, plugged it into the telephone line, and broadcast to the neighbors,” he says. Who probably made a point of tuning in. Because if you know Tom to talk to him, you’ve been soothed and moved by that velvet voice of his.

In 1961--the same year Harry died--Tom graduated from CHS and went to Franklin College, where he parlayed that voice into a show on the campus radio station and then into one on a local commercial station. In November 1964, WAKE 1500 AM went on the air in Valparaiso and Tom snagged himself a real gig there.

“I was the first one they hired,” he remembers. Tom played “middle-of-the-road” stuff, as he calls it now, “soft rock”: the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams.

For a year and a half Tom spun the discs and was happy. Then in May 1966 an opportunity came his way, maybe the opportunity. “It was a fork in the road for me,” he says. “A friend of dad had a station in Indianapolis, WXLW. He found out through my dad I was working in radio and he wanted me to come to Indianapolis and work for him. He wanted me to work for him in the worst way. I was young. I was 21.”

And Tom had his whole life in front of him.

In the end he lived it here. “To make a long story short I decided to join my dad in the dealership. He needed help.”



Tom denies having any. In any case, there was no better time in the history of the automobile to be selling cars than in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “The GTOs, the Firebirds, the Trans Ams. That was a great era in the car business. We had a lot of fun with that stuff.”

Tom’s favorite personal rides?

A 1970 GTO Judge: “In orange.” And a ‘69 Grand Prix: “with that boat-tail look to it.” (“The styling of those cars was fantastic,” Tom says. “John DeLorean was the engineer who styled GTOs. He was a little ahead of his time.”)

For 10 years Tom sold cars. In 1970 he made vice-president, only 27 and VP with a GTO in the driveway. Then, in 1975, his father retired and sold Smith Motors to Jack Connors. Jack was a superb businessman in his own right. He’d built the Crossroads Truck Stop in Lake Station from scratch, then sold it to Phillips Petroleum, and Jack had cash to spend. “He got interested in Smith Motors,” Tom says. “And he talked me into staying with him. ‘You know everybody in town,’ Jack said. And that’s the way it went.”

That is the way it went, for the next 40 years. Tom sold cars--two or three a week, 10 a month, 120 a year, year in, year out, figure 8,000 when all was said and done. And Jack always treated him well, Tom says. Later his children did too--Jack Jr., Tim, Kathy, Chris, and Mike--when Jack died in 2001 and they started running the business themselves. Tom and Clan Connors have this in common, to be sure: they were their fathers’ sons and daughters, they all felt the gravitational pull of the family business, and they all chose to stay close to home.

“Connors is one of the greatest places to work,” Tom says, “with a real family atmosphere and caring of their employees and all customers. You can see why our sales have been through the roof year after year.”


Yet for Tom the job was never about--never just about--sales. “The true satisfaction is helping someone,” he says. “The Connors family understands that. That’s why there’s no pressure on the customers. Jack always wanted people to enjoy the process of getting something new without a lot of hype and pressure. If you treat people right, they appreciate it. If you exceed their expectations, you’re doing your job right.”

Eventually Tom found his own role evolving, as he began selling to repeat customers and then to their children and then to their children’s children. He became a small rock of constancy in the rushing stream of time, a minor tradition in scores of households around Duneland, a provider of milestones. “After a certain number of years the bulk of your business is repeats and referrals,” Tom says. “That’s what good salesmen hope for: recommendations and the same people coming back.”

“In later years I found myself becoming a counselor to a lot of people coming in,” he adds. “I would hear about their finances, their family situation. Customers felt comfortable opening up to me. And I of course kept it confidential, absolutely confidential. The fact is, every day is different. You learn from everybody you talk to, steelworkers, engineers, teachers, all walks of life.”

Tom doesn’t dwell on that fork in the road, half a century ago. It was someone else’s fork, who hadn’t built himself a life and a legacy. “I’ve got no regrets,” Tom says.

“It’s been a good life, living in this outstanding community we have. We all know what Chesterton is, what a good place it is to raise a family. I was fortunate to have raised my own here: my eldest son Brendan and his children, Ian, Marissa, Gillian, and Blaire, and my youngest son Mark.”


Posted 12/29/2015




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