Family, friends, students and alumni paid tribute to Fresno State alumnus Earl Smittcamp during an emotional, song-filled memorial service Friday at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clovis.
Hundreds packed inside the church. Chairs and screen monitors were placed alongside the hall and an outside tent with additional monitors was set up to accommodate the overflowing crowd that came to pay final respects to a man who left a lasting mark beyond the peach trees where he found his initial success as a farmer.
With a family as big as the Smittcamps – four children, 14 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren – family members voted on who would speak on behalf of everyone. Grandsons Brent and Blake Smittcamp and granddaughters Jessica Kimball and Courtney Copeland Kelly were chosen to honor their grandfather by sharing their memories of him.
Campus flags were flown at half-mast on Friday in honor of Smittcamp.
Rev. H. Spees called Smittcamp “a hard-working, dedicated, joyful” man who came from humble beginnings. A Kerman native, Smittcamp was raised by his mother after his father left them.
“Because he came from nothing, he always gave back, but never robbed someone’s dignity while providing them with generosity,” Spees said at Friday’s service.
Smittcamp was dedicated to attaining a higher education – he paid a friend $2 each week to drive him to Fresno State. He graduated in 1939 with a business degree and met his late wife, Muriel, when they were both students. Muriel died in 2009.
After college, he worked as a milkman before he was shipped off to the South Pacific to serve in the Marines during World War II, where he received a Purple Heart medal. After his military service, Smittcamp returned to Clovis and began what would become one of the Valley’s most successful fruit packing and processing businesses: Wawona Frozen Foods.
Through a $2 million donation, Smittcamp and his wife helped create the Smittcamp Family Honors College and Smittcamp Scholarship in 1998 and provided the land for the Smittcamp Alumni House. The program, unlike any other in the CSU system, benefits Central Valley students in the top of their high school graduating classes with full four-year scholarships that cover housing and tuition.
More than a benefactor, Smittcamp was spoken of as a “true Bulldog” who frequently attended athletic events and encouraged his grandchildren to enroll at his alma mater.
Granddaughter Courtney Copeland Kelly said her grandfather wore many hats in life.
“He was of the opinion that there was nothing better than being a Bulldog. He expected more from Smittcamps,” Kelly said. “His love of life has been contagious. A philanthropist, peach farmer, proud Bulldog, smart businessman and big family man, it’s an honor to carry on the Smittcamp legacy that he built.”
Dr. Honora Chapman, former director of the Smittcamp Family Honors College, said she would often joke that, thanks to his generosity, Smittcamp had a thousand more grandchildren through the Smittcamp students.
“He was so inspiring, and he clearly loved all of us, everyone associated with the honors college – all the kids, all the staff, all the faculty,” Chapman said.
“He was a very loving person and that came through the service today, and it’s very true. It’s not just empty words. He really was inspiring, joyful, hardworking and he expected all [Smittcamp students] to work hard, too.
“These students picked up on, it and that’s what’s really his legacy.”
Emma DenBesten, a Smittcamp honors student, said she admired his efforts to create change in the community.
“It’s so inspiring. I really think he sets the mold for what all people who are that successful should be like,” DenBesten said. “His devotion to hard work and giving back to the community that he’s from, it’s inspiring.”
Smittcamp also contributed to Fresno State athletics. Along with other donors and fundraising efforts, he helped secure donations for the construction of Beiden Field and Bulldog Stadium.
Eldest grandson Brent Smittcamp touched on his grandfather’s dedication to Bulldog athletics.
“He was passionate about them and was in support whether they played good or bad,” Brent said. “He was the quickest to get to the car from a stadium seat.”
Fresno State football coach Tim DeRutyer, who’d only met Smittcamp a few times, said, “Knowing what a great benefactor he was, what he’s done for this whole community, but in particular Fresno State, I wanted to come here and honor his legacy. He’s got a fantastic family, and I wanted to be here for their sorrow.”
“He set just an impressive example in how to live a life,” DeRuyter said. “You hear the stories of how many lives he touched and how gregarious he was and how giving he was. What a great example for the rest of us.”
Smittcamp served on many community foundations and boards and also ran for public office twice. He was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the White House Conference on Food and Nutrition in 1969.
The family encouraged those interested in preserving his memory to donate to the Smittcamp Family Honors College, Children’s Hospital Central California Foundation or any preferred charity.