BROOKSVILLE — Byon Smiddy sold used cars. So, naturally, when he saw the young man loitering around the Fords, Chevys and Plymouths parked just off U.S. 41 in Brooksville, he sprang into action.
"I just throwed my hand out to him and said, "You don't have to be walkin','' Mr. Smiddy told a St. Petersburg Times reporter in October 1979. "Come on over here and I'll sell you a car.''
What happened next placed Brooksville, then a sleepy little town, in the crosshairs of every major media outlet and the FBI. Things got so crazy for Mr. Smiddy, he took his family to a relative's house to escape the constant telephone calls and knocks on the door.
Back then, it was big news when people defected from the Soviet Union. And the man Mr. Smiddy spotted outside his car lot turned out to be Igor Ponomarenko, a seaman who had stepped off the Russian phosphate freighter Krasnoya Znya in Tampa and hitched a 45-mile ride north.
"The FBI told Byon to keep Igor hidden,'' recalled Martha Smiddy, who married Byon in 1973. "They didn't want the Russians to come get him.''
Igor was just 19, spoke little English and had no money. His only clothes were those he wore when he jumped ship. He seemed saddened to leave his family behind, but longed for freedom. The Smiddys, who had two young children, gave him a room, bought him clothes, took him to a high school football game and fed him pizza and ice cream.
Then, almost as suddenly as he had appeared, Igor was gone, whisked away by the authorities.
Within a week, the FBI said Ponomarenko had assured Soviet officials that he was not being held against his will. He was granted political asylum. He went to New York briefly and then returned to Brooksville to spend the Christmas holidays with the Smiddys.
"Mr. Smiddy was the first person I met in this country, and I thought everybody must be like that,'' Ponomarenko said Tuesday night after leaving his intelligence job at the State Department in Washington, D.C. "I was so comfortable with the Smiddy family. I've thought of them several times over the years.''
But Ponomarenko never made his way back to Brooksville, and he never again saw Mr. Smiddy. He became a U.S. citizen and earned a master's degree in Russian linguistics at the University of Maryland, where he met Luvy. They married in 1984 and had three children. Ponomarenko worked for a while at the CIA, teaching Russian to operatives. And after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, he traveled occasionally to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smiddy often thought about his friend and his brief time in the spotlight. But mainly he wrote dozens of bluegrass gospel songs and stepped in to serve as temporary pastor at churches in Pasco and Hernando counties.
"He loved the Lord, and it was always his desire to help people,'' said Martha, who taught math at Hernando High School for 30 years. "That's what happened when he met Igor. He wanted to help.''
Five years ago, doctors diagnosed Mr. Smiddy with Alzheimer's. Martha watched over him at home. Twice he went to hospice care but then rallied. "His nurses called him the Comeback Kid,'' his wife said. Even though he could barely remember details of his life, Mr. Smiddy could finish the Scriptures that Martha would read at his bedside.
Finally, on May 5, Mr. Smiddy closed his eyes and he was gone. He was 83.
They played some of his bluegrass gospel songs at the funeral. Martha had the title of his favorite hymn, He Called My Name, embroidered on his casket. Mr. Smiddy, who served in the Army in Guam at the end of World War II, was buried at the Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell.
Six days later, Igor Ponomarenko got the news. Three decades have disappeared, "faster than I could have imagined,'' he said. "But I'll always remember Mr. Smiddy, his care and generosity. I will always remember that family and Brooksville.''
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Bill Stevens, the Times' North Suncoast editor, covered Igor Ponomarenko's defection in 1979. He can be reached at (727) 869-6250 or at [email protected]