Fallen State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith eulogized as a man of integrity, faith and goofy humor
INDEPENDENCE, Ia. — Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith was remembered Friday as a humble leader who leavened a commitment to justice, faith and family with a goofy sense of humor.
“Jim’s superpower was his integrity,” Pastor Paul Heppner told hundreds of mourners gathered at Independence High School. “He was the real deal.”
Smith, 51, was a 27-year veteran of the State Patrol. He led a tactical unit out of Oelwein that often was called to potentially violent situations.
He died of a gunshot wound April 9, during a standoff in Grundy Center, during which Smith and other law officers went into a house to try to arrest a man holed up inside. Michael Thomas Lang, a Grundy Center native, has been charged with first-degree murder in Smith's death.
Friday’s service was packed with law enforcement officers, firefighters and other public safety officials from across Iowa and beyond. It took more than half an hour for them to file in to the gym at the beginning of the funeral, each of them saluting somberly as they passed Smith's casket.
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Heppner, interim pastor of Jesup Bible Fellowship, recalled his friend’s habit of playing Christian music, including while on duty. Smith often talked about his faith, including with people who found themselves in the back of his patrol car, the pastor said.
“I’ve been told that he held his audience absolutely captive,” Heppner said, drawing chuckles from the audience.
'Jim was a sheepdog that protected sheep'
State Patrol Col. Nathan Fulk told mourners that Smith’s biggest vice was chocolate milk, which he would buy for himself as a reward when he’d done something well. The serious-looking sergeant loved superhero movies, and he sometimes carried a Superman lunch box.
Fulk said Smith was a quietly confident leader of the tactical unit, and he always wanted to be the first officer to hit a door in a volatile situation.
“Jim was a sheepdog that protected sheep,” the colonel said.
At first, Smith resisted suggestions he apply for a promotion, Fulk said, because he liked patrolling roads and keeping Iowans safe. But Smith eventually agreed to put in for promotion to sergeant, so he could better mentor younger troopers.
Zane Hall, a former pastor at Smith’s church in Jesup, said his friend saw things in black and white terms, and held himself to a high standard. "There was right, and there was wrong," Hall said.
But Smith always showed humility, in public and in private, Hall said. He never wanted to take credit for what he'd done.
Every Sunday, Smith played drums for the church’s music group. And every Sunday, he thanked the pastor for the opportunity, even though he always said his musical skills were marginal.
“He thought his drumming ability was not that great, but it was good enough for Jesus — and that’s all that mattered,” Hall said.
Several speakers cited a Bible passage, “Greater love has no one than this: That he lay down his life for his friends.”
Matt Perez, Smith’s former pastor and longtime friend, talked about the need to have faith after such a senseless tragedy.
Perez read from a letter Smith wrote to his children, Zander and Jazlyn. “God is good,” Smith wrote. “He does not have to answer to me. God does not have to explain life to me, or work on my time frame. He is God, and he is always right.”
Smith was the 11th trooper in Iowa State Patrol history to be killed in the line of duty, and the second to die of a gunshot.
The funeral was open to the public and livestreamed by TV station KWWL. It came after a public visitation Thursday evening.
After the funeral, scores of police cars followed the hearse through the town of Independence, headed to the cemetery. Their emergency lights flashed red and blue, but their sirens were silent.
American flags lined the streets, and many businesses displayed signs honoring Smith. Townspeople stood on the sidewalk, watching the somber procession for their longtime neighbor. Many removed caps. Some held their right hands over their hearts.
During the service, Col. Fulk thanked Iowans for their support of the State Patrol in the tragedy’s wake.
“We’re hurting, but we’re not broken,” he said. “We are struggling, but we’re not lost. And we’re deeply saddened, but we will work to find peace in the days ahead.”
Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8449.