Smittcamp matriarch dies at age 92

October 8, 2009 

Muriel Smittcamp, matriarch of a Clovis farming family that has contributed millions to philanthropic causes in the Valley, will be memorialized at a service today.

Mrs. Smittcamp, 92, died Wednesday in her home after a long illness.

She was born in 1917 to Robert and Jessie May Schmeiser in Yolo County and was raised in Corcoran, where her father farmed in the Tulare Lake basin. Flooding in the basin forced a move to Fresno, where she attended Fresno High School and, later, Fresno State College.

At Fresno State, she met her future husband, Earl Smittcamp, in 1936. Their first kiss was a stolen moment on a geology class trip to a mine near Friant.

"We were lagging behind the others in the mine," Mrs. Smittcamp told The Bee in 2005. "He grabbed me and gave me a kiss."

While the couple courted in college, Muriel Smittcamp won a 1926 Essex automobile in a 10-cent raffle, daughter Betsy Kimball said. Because her beau was working summers in gold mines near Nevada City, she gave him the car so he could drive down and visit her.

The two married in 1940 and had their first son, Robert, in 1941.

Mrs. Smittcamp raised their son while her husband served in the Marines in World War II. After the war, the couple bought her father's 200-acre Clovis fruit ranch at Minnewawa and Nees avenues -- the start of what would eventually become Wawona Ranch. The agricultural operation would later include fruit farming, packing, frozen-foods production and food processing.

The couple would add three more children to their family: daughters Carol and Betsy and son Bill.

Mrs. Smittcamp helped her husband often during their early farming years, Kimball recalled. "Dad would drive the tractor and put Mom on the back, riding on the V-plow, to give it weight to sink into the ground," she said. "I can't picture her doing that. She must have really loved him to do that."

Carol Copeland remembers her mother as a gracious woman who did everything she could to put everyone else at ease.

"She had a way of making everyone feel their story was more important than hers," Copeland said. "She always put everyone else's needs above her own."

Over the years, the success of the Smittcamps' farming operations enabled the family to make substantial contributions to the community, including more than $1.5 million to Saint Agnes Medical Center and $3.5 million to California State University, Fresno. They also gave land to both institutions.

The Smittcamp Family Honors College and the Smittcamp Alumni House at Fresno State are named for the couple, as is a scholarship fund at Fresno City College.

Copeland said her mother was "the silent strength behind my dad."

"Everyone thinks my dad is this big strong person who holds everything together," she said of her father, who twice ran for state legislative posts and rose to prominence in Valley Republican circles.

But Copeland remembers several major occasions -- when a boyhood illness threatened her older brother Bob, or when Earl Smittcamp suffered a heart attack at age 58 -- "when Mom rose to the occasion and held us all together."

Copeland recalled growing up in the harvest seasons when her father would spend all day at the packinghouse.

"Two or three times a week, my mom would put together these big bouquets of flowers for my dad's desk, and everyone could enjoy them because there was a big window from the office," she said. "She was raising four kids, making these bouquets, making great lunches. ... She did it all."

Over the years, Muriel Smittcamp was active in her children's school PTAs and her own interests, including the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority, the Fresno County Republican Women's Club and the Fresno State Alumni Association.

She was a founding member of Los Rancheros Guild of what is now Children's Hospital Central California and served on the boards of the Fresno County Easter Seal Society, the Fresno County Historical Society and the Clovis Towne Ladies Investment Club.

But while much of her work was behind the scenes supporting her husband's business and political endeavors, Mrs. Smittcamp's efforts did not go unnoticed.

In 1980, she was among the honorees recognized by Fresno State with an Outstanding Alumni Award, and in 1999 she received the Common Threads Award, recognizing San Joaquin Valley women for their agricultural, philanthropic and community service efforts.

Mrs. Smittcamp was inducted into the Clovis Hall of Fame in 2001, and then-state Sen. Charles Poochigian selected her as the 2005 Woman of the Year for the 14th Senate District.

"It's a cliché that behind every man there's a strong woman, but Mom totally exemplified that," Copeland said. "What they did, they could not have done separately."

Mrs. Smittcamp is survived by Earl Smittcamp, her husband of 69 years; son Bob Smittcamp of Fresno, daughters Carol Copeland and Betsy Kimball and son Bill Smittcamp, all of Clovis; 14 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and a nephew and three nieces.

A memorial service is at 3 p.m. today at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clovis. Remembrances may be made to the Smittcamp Family Honors College at California State University, Fresno, to Children's Hospital Central California in Madera, or to the donor's favorite charity.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service