‘The Greatest Man in the World’ came from Westfield

Posted November 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

By Julie Ann Madden

“It’s hilarious,” said Westfield Mayor Bill Hummel at the Nov. 12 council meeting.

“It’s quite a tale,” he said, then explained Westfield, Iowa is the hometown of a fictitious character named Jack Smurch in a short story entitled “The Greatest Man in the World” which was written by the late American author James Thurber and published in The New Yorker magazine Feb. 21, 1931.

“We went to school right here in Westfield and never heard of this story,” said Hummel, who is a lifelong Westfield resident.

“(The author) fairly well describes what’s going on around here,” he said, explaining the character Jack “Pal” Smurch is a mechanic’s helper in a small garage in Westfield whose mother is a “short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield.”

“That’s River Sioux Park,” he said. “This is Thurber’s own tale but apparently someone was from here or Thurber had been through here but we are the hometown of his fictitious character.”

This story came to light when City Clerk Angela Olson’s husband, Dave, googled “Westfield, Iowa” on the World Wide Web.

And there it was, under Wikipedia: “Westfield is a city in Plymouth County, Iowa, United States. The population was 132 at the 2010 census. It is the western most point in Iowa, this being due to a bend in the Big Sioux River.[4] A sign on the highway says ‘In Iowa, West Is The Best.’ The nearby Broken Kettle wildlife refuge is one of the few places in Iowa where rattlesnakes are commonly found.

Westfield is the purported home town of the central character…the fictional Smurch flies a second-hand, single-motored monoplane in July 1937 all the way around the world, without stopping.”

“The moral of the story is Smurch was not the person that the government and other individuals wanted him to be,” said Hummel. “He was a hillbilly and wasn’t the Charles Lindbergh type. Smurch was just a guy from a podunk town.”

In 1980, a PBS movie series of American Short Stories included one by the same title, based on Thurber’s story. Actor Brad Davis played Smurch who was described as “a drunken boor” and “a seriously flawed hero pilot” in various movie promotions. Co-stars were Carol Kane, of “Taxi” television fame; and Howard Da Silva, a Broadway musical actor who played the role of psychopathic Jud Fry in the original 1943 stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Google it yourself to read Thurber’s seven-page short story.

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