This is how the story begins: “Keystroke by keystroke, he types his latest masterpiece in an Oregon nursing home.”
It is the state of Oregon, not the Oregon in Dane County.
The story continues: “But Paul Smith is not an author. He’s an artist.”
The journalist who reported the story, John Stofflet, has spent the past decade as an anchor and reporter at NBC-15 in Madison. But in 2004, shortly before Stofflet left Seattle, and station KING-TV, he did a feature on a man born with cerebral palsy, who used the unlikeliest of methods to create art of surpassing beauty.
Paul Smith used the symbol keys (above the numbers) on a manual typewriter — he couldn’t grasp a brush, but he could type with one finger, his left hand supporting his right — to create what appear to be skilled paintings or drawings.
“Paul has created incredibly detailed pictures,” the story continued, “by artistically aligning those 10 keys against a black or colored ribbon.”
It hardly needs to be said that it was an inspiring story. “The Perseverance of Paul” won two regional Emmy Awards, and is one of Stofflet’s personal favorites across his long career as a broadcast journalist.
When Stofflet, with the help of former NBC-15 colleague Phil Levin, decided to launch a personal website — www.johnstofflet.com — last December, he created a YouTube channel, providing a video link to a few of his best stories. As of last month, the Paul Smith story had received around 100 views on YouTube.
Starting about two weeks ago, however, Stofflet began hearing from friends and colleagues around the country, who said they had watched his Paul Smith story after receiving a link through various social media feeds.
It turned out a popular website, San Francisco Globe (www.sfglobe.com), had somehow come across Stofflet’s story, and put it up on their site.
People watched it and shared it, and because everyone was watching the copy hosted on Stofflet’s YouTube channel, it was possible to track just how many people have seen it.
As of Friday, Stofflet’s decade-old Paul Smith story had nearly 3.7 million views on YouTube.
That’s right: 3.7 million. The viewers include people in India, Australia, Singapore, Romania and the United Arab Emirates.
On one day alone, Sept. 11, the story received more than 730,000 views.
“It’s the craziest thing,” Stofflet said last week.
He reached out to the San Francisco Globe to see how they discovered his story but didn’t hear back. It’s probable they don’t know Paul Smith is no longer living, but then the real story isn’t Smith’s death, but rather the remarkable things he did while he was alive.
Stofflet was in his last year at KING-TV when he did the story. He spent 16 years in Seattle, working on a nightly magazine-style show that had a travel budget and air time for stories that required more than a couple of sound bites.
It was in a print magazine — an airline’s in-flight publication — that Stofflet first read about Paul Smith. By 2004, Smith — who was known as “The Typewriter Artist” — was about finished creating. He was 83. But he rallied when Stofflet made the five-hour drive from Seattle to Roseburg, Oregon, where Smith had lived in the Rose Haven Nursing Center since 1967.
In Stofflet’s piece, it’s clear the staff at the center loved Smith. One told Stofflet, “He’s a humble man, a real gentle soul.” Smith’s art lined the walls of the center, and as evidenced in Stofflet’s story, the work was good — not good for someone with cerebral palsy, but very good, period.
Smith’s speech is a little hard to understand in the story, but he’s worth listening to. When people looked at his art, and said — as many did — “I could never do that,” Smith answered, “What can you do?”
The best source for biographical information on Smith is the website www.cerebralpalsy.org, and a 2013 piece titled, “A tribute to the typewriter artist.”
Smith was born in Philadelphia, raised in Florida, and first began using a neighbor’s discarded typewriter at 11.
The tribute piece describes his later method of creating art: “He would secure the shift key in a locked position to make sure he didn’t inadvertently type numbers. Different symbols created the look of varied textures, and depending on the look Paul was attempting to achieve, he would adjust the spacing to type symbols in short proximity, or far.
“As technology advanced,” the story continued,” his art evolved. The invention of color typewriter ribbons gave Paul the flexibility to layer in color. He would soon press his thumb on the ribbon to create shade.”
Paul Smith died in June 2007, by which time Stofflet was in Madison. He heard about the death from a colleague in Seattle.
Stofflet usually plays his Paul Smith story when he’s asked to give presentations, and it never fails to make an impression. “Grade school kids or seniors,” Stofflet said. “They’re transfixed.”
Still, he was unprepared for the current YouTube bonanza.
“I am so touched by it,” Stofflet said. “Paul would be shocked, so many people seeing and hearing his story.”