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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Thursday, November 24, 2011

In Memory of Michael Woodsmith

A Recollection in Memory of

The Rev. Michael Woodsmith LVN

By Robert Warren Cromey

Michael Smith says he met me when I arrived in my VW to perform a wedding at Holy Innocents' San Francisco, where the scheduled cleric was a no-show. I don’t remember that but do recollect Nina and him coming to diner at 56 Amber Drive when I was vicar of St. Aidan’s, SF.

Michael was born in England, his father in the British Army. His father and mother lived in India many years before Michael’s birth. Michael went to college and studied theology in England.

He told me that he and Nina wanted to marry in England. As a seminarian he could not expect to get ordained if his fiancée was divorced, which Nina was. He came to California and Bishop James A. Pike ordained him in the early 1960s.

He became curate at Christ Church Alameda where he ran the youth group. He invited me to come speak to the group on urban ministry and civil rights. His boss Wolfe Hodgkin chastised him for inviting Cromey, that radical, to talk to the youth. Michael and Wolfe did not get along and Michael soon moved on to work construction. He was disillusioned by the church’s treatment of him and Nina. Wolfe’s son became a good friend of Michael's and smoking buddy over the years.

Nina and Michael then made jewelry and followed the street fairs all over California. I would run into them from time to time selling their wares in front of Ghirardelli Square. Tiring of the fairs, Michael decided to become a Licensed Vocational Nurse. Nina was not happy with that decision and for a number of reasons they broke up. Michael gave Nina their house, a Victorian on Duncan Street.

Michael immediately loved being a hands-on nurse working with mentally and emotionally disturbed teens.

A crack table tennis player, Michael when challenged by the kids would proceed to beat them royally at the game. He with the other nurses from time to time had to physically restrain the kids when they became violent and threatening.

The story of Audrey and Michael’s meeting and courtship is the stuff of a fairy tale. Michael loved Golden Gate Park. One sunny day he went into the Japanese Tea Garden, enjoying its red and yellow leaves, the arch bridge, the green and yellow straw-thatched teahouse. Audrey Wood was sipping her tea. Michael took his tea and they began a conversation.

Michael asked, “So what are you doing these days.”

"I’m a student at the Church Divinity School in Berkeley."

"Are you planning to be a priest?"

"Yes, I hope to be ordained in the Episcopal Church."

Michael smiled, “I am a priest of the Episcopal Church."

"Really?"

"Yes, but I work at St. Mary’s Hospital as a nurse now."

So the conversation continued and the relationship flourished. When they married, Michael Smith and Audrey Woods became Michael and Audrey Woodsmith.

When Audrey came to Trinity as a seminarian, Michael decided to give the church another chance. After attending for a while he began to take the 8:00 AM service.

He told me one day, “Robert, if I say I will do something, you can depend on me to do it and be on time.” He continued, “I’ll also tell you this, I will always be loyal to you, I’ll never criticize you behind your back.” To my knowledge he kept those promises.

Michael and I used to have dinner or lunch together every month. We both love Indian food and we’d eat at the Nan ‘n Curry on Irving St. He expressed decided opinions on a number of things.

He’d say, “Robert, see this coat, I got it at Good Will. It is a $500 coat and I got for $75.00." He loved a bargain.

He would scowl and proclaim, "Robert, no gentleman puts ice cubes in single malt scotch.” Putting some cubes into my Glen Livet, I'd say, “I do.” He’d look properly offended.

The Cromeys and the Woodsmiths often dined together. Audrey finished seminary and did not get ordained. Both Michael and Audrey were terribly upset. Audrey went on to become a high school English teacher, gaining tenure at Fremont High School. They bought a home there and Michael commuted to St. Mary’s Hospital until he was felled by illness.

Michael had a tough exterior and often a gruff manner. I attributed some it to his having a British Army career sergeant for a father. Below the surface he was kind, gentle and caring. While at Trinity several couples sought him out to perform their marriage ceremonies. When I was very sick in 2004 he came to visit me almost every day. After abdominal surgery, I had hospital psychosis for a week. One of the days Michael came to see me I was refusing to get out of bed and into a chair. Michael said, “Robert, do as you are told.” I snarled back. “Do you who I am? Don’t you dare talk to me like that.” Michael smiled knowingly.

He also visited Aaron Hayes, Michael Patterson from Trinity and Aidan Hansen from Ann’s school when they were patients at St. Mary’s. They are only the ones I know about. I always felt he loved, supported and cared for Ann and me. I trusted him completely.

In 2004 I was quite sick. After abdominal surgery, I had a psychotic episode for a week. One of the days Michael came to see me I was refusing to get out of bed and into a chair. Michael said, “Robert, do as you are told.” I snarled back. “Do you who I am? Don’t you dare talk to me like that.” Michael smiled knowingly.

He supported Audrey as she finished seminary and went on for a Master’s Degree in English and worked in a couple of schools before landing in Fremont. He idolized her and showed it with his steady glance and attention to her. She also adored him. The 28-year difference in their ages seemed to make no difference. I loved it that as a Brit he disdained France. When he and Audrey went to Paris a few years ago, he confessed to absolutely loving that city – even more than London.

For a time Michael lived in their apartment on Third Ave. four nights a week and went home to Fremont for the weekends. He grew to hate the time alone and away from Audrey. He and I often had dinner one evening a week. He was not comfortable at Trinity under the new interim and stopped attending. He told me that he had tried renewing is connection to the church at Trinity, now he was giving it up.”

He often talked of his love for his theological college in England and the emphasis on ministry to the sick and poor. He had a rigorous training to be a priest at the school. He reminded me that he had experience at the Urban Training Center in Chicago. He had done work with youth gangs and had marched in Selma, Alabama in 1964. Now he felt he was best at being a nurse at this juncture in his life.

He and Audrey went to Paris again this summer of 2011. He got sick, spent time in the hospital there and returned home. He soon was too sick to work at St. Mary’s. He spent several weeks at home breathing with the help of oxygen. Audrey’s mother Jody Woods spent almost every day with Michael for three months so that Audrey could continue to work and he would not be left alone. Even before that they had a good relationship- and he would never hear a negative word said about mothers-in-law. Soon Michael had to be hospitalized and he died Sunday November 20, 2011, in the hospital in Fremont, California. His wife Audrey was present. He was 70.

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