Adirondack Guide Smith Brett Lawrence passed away on Thursday, June 30, every bit as much an icon of Keene, NY as Giant Mountain, Noonmark Diner, and the old red barn at the bottom of Spruce Hill (at the junction of routes 73 and 9N).
His full white beard and his red truck from which he flew the American flag gave Brett presence. He was also one of the last visages of an era that stretches back to the early days of the 19th century, and of a family that for four generations made their living as a guide and caretaker.
Brett believed that shit happens, and that when it does you man up and take it. Brett didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out easy ways through a problem, only that when he had a task in hand, nothing was going to stop him from accomplishing it — to the best of his ability. Also, Brett didn’t view life as fair; in consequence, he was generous with anyone in need.
Brett lived with a positive can-do attitude He fought esophageal cancer head on, favoring an aggressive response to a cancer third-stage when diagnosed. Though his immune system was weak, Brett came proudly through radiation without losing a single hair and surgery with his spirits high. Most importantly, he left us at 70 with his integrity intact.
Brett had — and likely will have for all eternity — four great assets: his status as a Marine; his love of his bride-for-life Mary and their children; his love of the Adirondacks and friends here; and his talents as a woodsman.
Brett was no saint and his language was often laced with expletives fit to blister the paint off a wall. He loved bourbon. He could be bigoted. It didn’t take much to get his temper up. He also knew his own faults, at times asking employers why they hadn’t already fired him years ago. For all this, Brett had many close friends, often with their politics, lifestyles, or economic conditions polar opposite to his. Brett had a huge heart, honest, straight, loyal. You could count on Brett. He was smart and never static. He had a great sense of humor and several friends speak of making his colorful expressions into a book. When he swore, which was often, he took pride in remaining grammatically correct.
“I met Brett when being interviewed by the church,” said Pastor Milton Dudley. “I was sent to have dinner with him and Doug Downs at Baxter Mountain. Brett was my ride home. When I got into the truck and found two pistols on the seat, he said, ‘I’ve got to protect the Governor.’ I realized that if Brett could be in the same church as these others, it was a remarkable place!”
With the other Keene Valley Boys of the 1970s, Brett was well-known at the Spread Eagle Tavern, Elm Tree Inn, Arena Grill, and Happy Jack’s. His spirited ways led him to leave SUNY Plattsburgh to join the Marines, there serving a structure, comrades, and mores that took him through some of the worst of the Vietnam War: Chu Lai Marine base during the Tet Offensive. He came home an E5 Sergeant with two Good Conduct Medals, a National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, a Naval Unit Citation, a Presidential Unit Citation for service, and the Rifle Expert Badge. Brett set a new goal of becoming a guide, worked for one family for a decade and another for three, providing himself with a measure of independence and his family with security.
“Brett worked for our family for over three decades,” said Bill Weld, a former Governor of Massachusetts. “Brett and I were nearly exactly the same age. They broke the mold with Brett, he was totally one of a kind. Brett and I spent a lot of time alone up at our camp together. One time we got caught in a lightning storm up at Stillwater. We had to ditch the aluminum canoe and swim down the inlet holding the fly rods above our heads. Halfway we realized that holding up fishing rods while in a body of water during a heavy lightning storm wasn’t such a hot idea.”
“Brett was so full of life and generosity. It was a real privilege to know him so well and for so long doing things that we both loved. I remember my father saying to me in 1955 that the Upper Lake looked exactly the same as it did in 1910. I can say to my kids in 2016 that it looks exactly the same as it did in 1955; it’s people like Brett Lawrence who have kept it that way.”
In his wife, Mary, Brett came up against a will as strong as his and a heart as big. After a six-month courtship Brett married Mary, adored her, and forever said so to any who would listen. He loved his children, Molly and Bronson, and it was his late joy to receive his grandson, Greggor Emmett.
“I’ve known Brett forever,” said Charity Marlatt. “I think of him as an Oreo cookie: hard on the outside; warm and loving on the inside. One never knew exactly what to expect with Brett but he was always sincere in friendship. Mary’s the same — the kind of people they are. I expect him to come back: to come in the door any moment from hunting camp, up the lakes, somewhere. It’s hard to believe that he won’t this time. Brett taught me it takes all kinds to make up a diverse, interesting community. Every time I walked into church he’d jump up and give me a hug. He taught me not to be so judgmental.”
His big personality made any space Brett occupied crackle with energy. He cared for his guns and hunted with passion. He was an exceptional cook, especially of venison. Carrying the American flag at Memorial and Veteran’s Day, his pride was as palpable as the polish on his boots. He wore a jacket and tie to church. And all are saddened by his passing.
“My best description of Brett?” said Pastor Dudley. “He had a heart bigger than his bravado. Whatever he said, that was Brett, but underneath it a was a heart that put it all of that to shame. That’s probably how his disparate friends could come together: there was so much more to Brett beneath the surface! Though his beliefs were hardcore, you could see him chipping away at some of them. And there was probably no one in town more anti-war than Brett Lawrence: he’d seen it, knew the horror, didn’t want anyone to have to face that. He was a Marine to his last breath, but never wanted anybody to have to fight. A character and a friend, probably the hardest one to lose in my seventeen years here. He’s the guy who’d help out anytime. He scoffed at pain relief, perhaps thinking he’d be less of a man if he took anything for it — his attitude of ‘I’m going to do what it takes to get through this.’ I think he did a lot of that in his life.”
“Brett and I grew up together,” said Tom Hickey. “We’d play baseball in the fields. He was especially direct and loyal and the last full-time guide, as I don’t believe there are any left on the Upper Lake. I learned how to do a lot of stuff working with Brett. When something goes wrong on the Upper Lakes, you either spend a day going to get someone to help you or you fix it. Brett could fix almost anything — from gaslights to water heaters. If there was a problem, Brett could fix it. He was always energetic. We worked and hunted — he was a great hunter, very good in the woods, cautious, careful. He was one of a kind.”
“I eventually realized I didn’t grow up like everyone else,” said his daughter Molly, “that not every little girl knows how to butcher a deer before she knows how to pick out shoes. One of the first times mom left me alone overnight with dad — I was a little kid barely in school — she came home and he had bought me my first 22. I didn’t get left alone overnight with dad again for a while! When I went to college, first day of classes, I got out of the shower and was walking back to my dorm room at 7:00 AM and there was dad standing out in front of my dorm room with a cup of coffee in one hand and a case of beer and chicken wings in the other. He handed me the coffee and said, ‘This is before class” then handed me the beer and said, ‘This is for after class’.
“Dad loved it when the power went out and he’d have to stay with Bronson and me home from school. He’d crank up the wood stove and oil lamps. He was in his element: we’d be excited because we didn’t have to go to school; dad was excited because there was no electricity. In the ice storm when the whole town was out of power for a week he cooked dinner and took meals to a lot of people around town. We called them ‘children-of-the-ice-storm dinners’.”
“Whatever we did, he was teaching us something: the right way to walk in the woods, to cook. Dad wore his heart on his sleeve: if he liked you, you knew it; if he didn’t like you, you knew it. He loved his family, his country, and was so happy to have a grandson. There was always company at the house. You’d never know who’d walk in. He always knew what everyone liked to drink and eat — had a drink ready when anyone would show up.”
“Before anyone would leave,” added Mary, “he’d say, ‘Drive fast, drink a lot, you know how I worry.’ The kids all grew up around firearms, and knew not to touch them. He didn’t believe in toy guns — that kids should have them.”
“Because guns aren’t toys,” chimed in Molly. “Kids shouldn’t be taught that they are. He didn’t like BB guns as he felt all they did was hurt things. If you’re going to shoot something, you should kill it.”
“And only for meat,” added Mary. “Anybody who wounded a deer and didn’t track it, he was done with them. He was all about safety and having a purpose. When he gutted a deer everything got used.”
“When he got done, you could put the left overs in a six-inch square box,” said Molly.
“Brett took me on my first deer hunt when I was 16,” said Billy Curtis, “and introduced me to bean, bacon, and split-pea sandwiches. He was making them when I woke up and told me I’d be thanking him for these in about four hours. He was right! Brett was a huge part of this community and loved being an Adirondack guide and caretaker: sharing meals cooked outdoors, sleeping outdoors, fishing, hunting, hiking — you name it, he loved to help bring another generation along, introducing them to the woods.”
“His roots went back to the Beede family that owned much of what’s now Ausable Club. He cared deeply about this community, went out of his way to be Santa Claus, and cooked meals for people. He touched people.”
On Saturday July 23, a private joint Marine-American Legion Post 1312 burial service was held for S. Brett Lawrence at 10:00 AM at Norton Cemetery in Keene, followed by a memorial service open to the community held at noon at the Keene Central School. Over 550 people attended. Senator Betty Little presented to Mary a New York State Proclamation honoring Smith Brett Lawrence dated 7-23-2016.
Photos from above: Brett Lawrence rowing a guideboat on Lower Ausable Lake, photo by Rebecca Soderholm; younger Brett Lawrence, courtesy of Mary Lawrence; Brett Lawrence with Bill Curtis’s son Billy, and his fish; and Marine Lt. Col. Gregory J. Hanville passing the flag used to honor S. Brett Lawrence to his wife (widow) Mary, provided.