Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Brooksville's Byon Smiddy and the Soviet defector he once hid

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


Byon F. Smiddy

Born: March 2, 1927

Died: May 5, 2010

Survivors: Wife Martha; sons Byon Smiddy Jr. and wife Jeannie and David Smiddy and wife Yvonne; daughters Christina Smith and husband Sean, Suzette Svensen and husband Eivind, and Marvla Lindberg; brother Francis Smiddy Jr.; sister Erline Olney; 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Brooksville's Byon Smiddy and the Soviet defector he once hid 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 12:37pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays make Hechavarria trade official


    Here is the release from the team ...


  2. Jones: Will Tampa Bay hit a Hall of Fame dry spell now?

    Lightning Strikes

    Marty St. Louis may lack the Hall of Fame stats, but two scoring titles, an MVP award and clutch goals should count for a lot. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
  3. SeaWorld shares drop Monday to 2017 low after disclosure of federal subpoena


    The Orlando parent company of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks saw its stock drop 3.5 percent Monday to $15.10, its lowest price of this year.

    Killer whales perform at Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld in Orlando in 2011, before public pressure was placed on the theme park company to curtail its orca shows.SeaWorld has since announced an end to the traditional killer whale entertainment  at its theme parks. [AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack]
  4. Update: Scientology cancels planned mock FBI raid on downtown building

    Special Topics

    CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology planned to film a mock FBI raid on a downtown building Monday afternoon, but the actors and cameras never showed up to the location disclosed to the city.

    According to Clearwater Police, the Church of Scientology plans to hold a mock FBI raid at 3 p.m. Monday at this vacant building at 305 N Fort Harrison Ave. Police announced the raid in advance to alert the public. They said they did not know the reason for the event. [Google Earch image]
  5. Support for gay marriage surges, even among groups once wary

    Human Interest

    NEW YORK — In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey.

    People gather in Washington's Lafayette Park to see the White House lit up in rainbow colors on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage legal. In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey released on Monday, June 26, 2017. [Associated Press]