SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ Thomas Smiley seemingly could do anything and enjoyed everything.
He was an excellent swimmer, an expert scuba diver. He was an avid outdoorsman with a passion for auto racing, twin loves he shared with the family he adored. Every place was a favorite place, his wife Gale said from their Granite Bay, Calif., home Tuesday, but Maui was special. Gale and Thomas bought a place there on Ka’anapali Shores, a family vacation home. Thomas was 65 now, retired from his optometry practices in Roseville and Sacramento.
He was in the water off Ka’anapali just before 9 a.m. Saturday when he was killed in a shark attack 60 yards offshore.
“He went out for one last swim before breakfast. I was on the third floor lanai,” Gale Smiley said Tuesday. “It happened right in front of me. No words can express … “
It was the sixth shark attack in Hawaii this year, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources’ division of aquatic resources, and the first fatal attack in Hawaiian waters since a 2015 attack on a snorkeler at Kanahena Point 40 miles to the south, Hawaii officials said.
Shark attacks are rare; fatal attacks more so. The odds are one in 12 million, shark expert Michael Domeier, president and executive director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, told Honolulu television KHON.
On Tuesday, barely 72 hours removed from the savage attack that took her husband’s life, Gale Smiley recalled the man she’s known since they were teenagers in Southern California, the husband she married, the father of their three children, her best friend.
“He loved the outdoors – we were out every weekend. He lived and breathed for his family. He wanted to show them what it meant to be a good person, a good friend, a good human being,” Gale Smiley said. “He always said, ‘Try everything. Be adventurous. Don’t be afraid … He said, ‘I’m going to try everything I can.’”
They were high school sweethearts. A friend introduced them. The introduction soon blossomed into love.
“We were married 42 years,” Smiley said. “He was absolutely my best friend. You couldn’t know a better man.”
“He was such a great man,” she continued. “We’re both from Southern California, we’re high school sweethearts. We have three kids, six grandchildren. He was their absolute role model. He taught them to be a good human being, a good friend. They’re really devastated.”
Smiley retired this year from Sacramento Contact Lenses & Optometry, the practice he founded in 1982 with partner Gene Shlyakhov. He earned his undergraduate degree in cell biology from UCLA and received his doctorate in optometry from UC Berkeley, but his life was part of the resume, too: accomplished water skier, antique and muscle car expert, stock car racer.
He fit it all in.
“Nothing seemed impossible to the man _ outdoorsman, water skier,” said Shlyakhov, his friend since they met at graduate school 43 years ago.
“But his biggest passion was his family. His kids adored him, his grandchildren loved him, his wife worshiped him _ we all did,” Shlyakhov said. “There’s a lot of grief and sadness, but I find a silver lining. I was privileged to know him 43 years. God sent me a gift.”
“He had a zest for life. Everyone that knew him, everyone said that he was the best person they knew. He was loved by a lot of people. We’ve had a lot of outpouring from across the country,” Smiley said.
A race just two weeks away was on the calendar. Smiley was a member of SCCA – Sports Car Club of America – racing his vintage 1965 Corvette on tracks across Northern California in the advanced ProX class.
“He loved racing. He loved cars. He got his family into racing – all of us, including me,” Gale said.
And he loved the water.
Smiley was unconscious when he was pulled from water about 25 feet deep, Honolulu television station KHON reported. One leg was severed at the knee. Witnesses watched first responders’ attempts to revive him, Hawaii News Now reported. Authorities on the island said warning signs were posted along Honokowai Point where the attack occurred.
Gale Smiley questioned that Tuesday. She said the couple saw no warning signs and said her husband would not have taken to the water if he knew it was unsafe. Smiley said she was told after the deadly attack that authorities had been monitoring the water after earlier shark activity.
“He was an advanced diver. If a sign was posted at that location – he’s a very intelligent diver, very astute, he’s been diving all over. He was very conscious of safety. He would not have gone into the water,” Smiley said. “They should’ve had that warning. It’s an unfortunate thing. I come from a family of first responders. He should have been made aware when there was a problem.”
Smiley also said few first responders were in that area. She watched helplessly as her husband struggled in vain to get to shore.
“He hollered out. He was conscious. He was trying to get help but he sat way too long. He wasn’t that far out. I could see him out there,” she said. “Safety has to be a bigger priority. Tom would like it if lessons were learned from this.”
On Tuesday, three days and thousands of miles from tragedy, Gale Smiley and her family are left with memories – and a final lesson.
“He gave of himself to everyone. To me, he was my other half. I learned so many things from him and together we made an amazing life I will treasure,” she said. “He always smiled. He always said, ‘Make the best of every day.’ We’re going to have him in our ear. He would not want anybody to be sad. That wasn’t in his nature.”