Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia
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Historical Sketches

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HISTORICAL SKETCHES OF  SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA
PUBLICATION 8-1974

W. D. Smith (1861-1938)

By Jayne W. Carter

           William Daniel Smith was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, June 1, 1861, fifty days after the first encounter of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

           His parents had been married in 1858. His father, William A. Smith, was of French origin. His mother, Elizabeth Virginia Chandler, was descended from a well-known Scotch-Irish family of Eastern Virginia and was related to the Chandlers of New Hampshire and Texas.

           One month prior to the birth of their first son, W. D., William A. Smith offered himself for military service with the Mecklenburg County 59th Regiment of Virginia Volunteers, called the Overland Grays. Entering as a private, he attained officer's rank during his three years of enlistment and saw service with his company on many of Virginia's hard-fought battlefields.

           Mrs. Smith last saw her husband alive at Drewry's Bluff. On leaving him there, she had a strong presentment, she said, that she would never see him again. On July 10, 1864, while Confederate forces were evacuating Petersburg, Virginia, William Smith stood washing powder stains from his face. He was shot by a Union sniper and fell murmuring his young wife's name. Death came mercifully soon, thus sealing his devotion to the South with his life's blood.

           Mrs. Smith was left a twenty-five year old widow with three children; W. D., O. M. and Martha. In the course of time she married Alexander Noblin, a young veteran of the Civil War who had served almost its entire duration. In 1868, Noblin brought his family to live in Scott County, Virginia, near the Snowflake community. To the family were then born five children: Delight, Elizabeth, Dora, Logan, and J. A.

           It has been said that W. D. Smith inherited many of his strong characteristics from his mother, who exerted a great influence in his early life. She was reported to be a woman of strong will power who chose the course of conduct for herself and her children, and allowed little or no deviation from that course. Yet she was not harsh - she guided her children with a hand of steel in a velvet glove. Her life was characterized by Faith in Christ, cheerful optimism, patriotism, and intolerance of hypocrisy and sham; her children drew these traits from her.

           Young W. D. Smith, like many other Confederate orphans left without means, was entirely dependent for education and success in life upon his fortitude and energy. After attending limited private schools for some years, he entered Estillville Academy located in the nearby county seat of Estillville. The school was then under the efficient management of Professor John B. Harr.

           His entrance into the Academy marked an era in his life. He found himself surrounded with young men who had enjoyed far better educational advantages than he; yet, by diligent study and exact performance of every duty assigned him, he had soon proved his worth. By thorough work and rapid progress, the young scholar earned the respect, confidence, and friendship of his associates and instructors.

           His academic career was soon interrupted by an event which seemed to erase all hope of further self-improvement. His stepfather, a stone-mason by trade, moved from the vicinity of Estillville Academy into a distant community. If young Smith were to continue his studies at the Academy, he would now be required to pay both tuition and board. He was without money, and there was no one to advance it to him. He left school and went with his family to their new home.

           Professor Harr was disturbed by his sudden absence. He had observed Smith to be an earnest, untiring student and now resolved to seek his return to school. Upon finding the family, Harr saw that Smith's stepfather could not finance further education; he then offered the boy a loan for his expenses repayable on easy terms. Accepting Professor Harr's generous offer, Smith returned to school. He had no need to borrow the money, however. He immediately filled a job opening as night guard at the county jail, and, by working at night, he earned enough money to pay his board and the expenses of his schooling during the day. Professor Harr continued to encourage his efforts by visiting him frequently on the job and providing him with a supply of interesting reading materials. After completing the Academy course, he attended Hamilton Institute at Mendota, Virginia, for three years. He began his career in 1880 by serving as a public school teacher for six years. As an instructor, he was eminently successful; he possessed a facility for inspiring his students to a love of study and attention to detail.

           As a teacher he began to determine the educational needs of Scott County. In 1886 he was given an opportunity to put his findings into action, for in that year he was appointed superintendent of Scott County schools, a job he devoted his efforts toward for the next fifty-one years.

      His success may best be measured by the improvement which marked the quality of education in his county from 1886 until 1937.

           In 1886, due to the arrival of the first train in Estillville,

Scott County began to swell in population. The people desired an improved free public school system, and they chose twenty-six year old Professor W. D. Smith to inaugurate and conduct such a system.

           He found, upon assuming his duties, that teachers with a good general education were unavailable. Ladies did not teach because it was generally conceded that a woman would be unable to "lay on the lash" as effectively as a man. Therefore, farmers, preachers, and others desiring work during late fall and early winter were hired to teach for $75.00 per term, if that sum became available from the county treasury. Curriculum included reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, geography, and history - offered in direct proportion to the teacher's ability to diagram the

sentences and solve the sums.

         Professor Smith was convinced of the fact that qualified teachers were essential for the educational improvement he sought. He turned to the previously poorly-attended summer institutes for teacher training and raised them by the force of his personality to new life and purpose.

          Through the much-needed study of subject matter and a pioneer study of methods, teachers of the old school were developed and inspired; new teachers, including women, entered the profession with a spirit of innovation and progress. Often having one hundred per cent of his teachers in attendance at the summer institutes, the superintendent was able to break the former bondage of teacher to textbook and thus awaken the spirit of inquiry. He also added dignity to the profession by raising scholarship standards for certification and by inducing school trustees to raise teacher's salaries. Teaching in the public school in Scott County now became a first-choice life work rather than a spare-time diversion to be endured for extra cash.

           Other work lay before Professor Smith. Upon becoming Superintendent, he found Scott County school property valued at $2000. Building were makeshift affairs, in that churches, old log houses, and dirt daub cabins were being used to house students. Comforts of heat, desks, books, charts, and even the most rudimentary school equipment were missing. The pupil of 1886 knew all about split-log seats, the open fireplace, the rudely constructed chalkboard, and an eraser that consisted of a tightly closed fist.

           The superintendent saw these conditions as a detriment to the ambition of Scott County's young scholars. He began supplanting existing schools with neat frame and brick buildings erected in accordance with approved plans of school architecture, so that when he left office in 1937, county school property was valued at nearly $700,000. Also, in 1937, nine thousand children were receiving education in seven accredited high schools, three junior high schools, and sixty-three elementary schools served by bus transportation. These statistics seem remarkable in light of the fact that at this time, Southwest Virginia had more children in school in proportion to the number of taxpayers than any other part of the state.

           The educational efforts of W. D. Smith were not confined to elementary and secondary education. He was an effective worker in securing the establishment in 1897 of Shoemaker College in Estillville, and he served as president of its board of trustees for many years until the college became a secondary school. He was also appointed to the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary, the State Teacher's College at Radford, and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol.

           The story of Mr. Smith's educational career is incomplete without reference to his actions as a man, separate from the superintendency. All along the road of his service to Scott County stood poor boys and girls whom he aided in their efforts to rise above the humble circumstances into which they, like him, had been born. Charitable with both his money and his time, he extended a helping hand to eager young people minus any reference to future obligation. His reward was seeing these young citizens enter the service of humanity in their chosen professions.

           W. D. Smith was remarkably successful as a politician. His tireless, sagacious spirit recommended him as a party leader; and in 1890 he was made chairman of the Democratic Party in Scott County, a position he held for four years. In 1898 he was appointed a member of the Democratic committee for the Ninth Congressional District, and in 1900 was elected chairman of that committee by the Democratic committee at Norfolk. His executive ability now had a suitable stage for action, and he carried the banner forcefully. Although he faced the strongest kind of opposition, it has been said he never lost a political fight. More than once his friends and fellow-Democrats sought to reward his devotion to the party by placing his name on the state ticket; but each time he decided, preferring his duties as an educator, a husband and a father to statewide acclaim.

           It was a school teacher who captured the heart of W. D. Smith. Sallie Lou Minnich, daughter of Edmond Minnich and Sara Jane Benham, was born December 14, 1865. Of Scotch-Irish origin, she was a lineal descendant of Peter Livingston, one of the earliest and most illustrious pioneers of Southwest Virginia. The Minnich family made their home in the Early Grove community of Scott, near Washington county. Sallie Lou was the first of ten children supported by her father's 150-acre farm.

           Little Sallie Minnich was remembered by those who taught her as a rapid learner. She was educated at Greenwood Academy, Blountville Academy, and Holston Institute; and she emerged wishing to share with others what she had learned. Naturally, she traveled to the superintendent's office in the county seat seeking her first employment.

           At first the young superintendent, W. D. Smith, saw this prospective employee as a charming girl. When he administered the oral certification examination, he began to see a refined woman of knowledge and character.

      The result of this first meeting was that the superintendent placed Miss Sallie Minnich in charge of teaching grades one through seven in the one-room Laurel Hill School near her family home. To this task she brought devotion to the teaching profession and a sincere interest in the success of each pupil.

           Mr. Smith continued to see Miss Minnich as often as time and distance would permit, and also he began to plan for the future. He purchased a sizable farm in the Yuma Community of Scott County upon which he pastured cattle and grew corn and wheat. After preparing the seven-room home located on his property to receive a bride, he declared his intentions by letter to Miss Minnich's father and was duly accepted. Their thirty-five

year union began at an evening ceremony solemnized at the bride's home on November 14, 1895.

           W. D. Smith found his wife a wise counselor and a capable homemaker. Their happiness was made complete by the birth of four children: W. D., Jr., in 1898; Rhea Edmond, in 1899; Howard Chandler, in 1901; and Sallie Lou, in 1903.

           In their community, both Mr. and Mrs. Smith were active in the Missionary Baptist Church. When Mrs. Smith first came to Yuma, the Baptist congregation was pastorless and holding services in a small schoolhouse.

      However, by 1914, under the guidance of building committee chairman W. D. Smith, the congregation had built and paid for a $3,000 church graced by five stained-glass windows. Reverend C. H. Compton became pastor, and W. D. Smith served as a deacon. Mrs. Smith was church clerk and Sunday School superintendent.

           The Smith home was known for its hospitality. Mrs. Smith never knew how many people the superintendent would bring home for the evening meal, and she soon learned to load the table to take care of all her dining room would seat. As the family grew, space for visitors deceased. By 1913, W. D. Smith had finished building a spacious home where his old home had stood; and the largest piece of new furniture he bought for it was a massive quarter-sawed oak dining table.

           Perhaps Mrs. Smith's best quality was her desire to help her neighbors when they needed help, a quality that her husband heartily approved. In 1927 a young mother of three living near the Smith home contracted tuberculosis, Mrs. Smith felt that at her advancing age of 62 there would be no danger in entering the home to take food and to train the young invalid to prevent the spread of the disease to her family. Yet, in July, 1928, Mrs. Smith was found to have tuberculosis also.

           After she had spent nine months in a private sanitorium, W. D. Smith brought his wife home apparently completely cured. However, in 1930 Mrs. Smith was stricken with influenza and never recovered. Her pastor came to visit the Smiths when it was no longer a secret that she had only a few days left. He told her that he was to speak at her funeral, and she replied, "If my work is done, my Saviour knows it. My house is in order. I am ready. Don't say too much." W. D. Smith lost his wife April 9, 1931. 

           Despite his deep grief, Professor Smith continued to carry out his duties as superintendent. He concentrated his efforts during the Great Depression of the 1930's on economy of budget, essential to keep schools in operations. Quick to sense the drift of economic conditions following the market collapse in 1929, the superintendent had then begun a retrenchment policy that enabled him to pare a total of $100,000 from the school budget by 1933. Scott County schools remained open.

           Reappointed in 1933, W. D. Smith discovered that he alone remained in service of the 117 county and city school superintendents who took posts in 1886. Calling him the dean of Virginia's school superintendents, the Virginia Journal of Education, pointed out the fact that W. D. Smith was the sole survivor of a small group of outstanding educational leaders in Virginia who had given up their entire lives to building up the public school systems in their own communities.

           The community he had labored for showed its appreciation to Mr. Smith on October 24, 1936, on his fiftieth anniversary as division superintendent. Thirty-five hundred strong, they paid him homage greater than any other ever accorded a living man in Scott County. Led by a march of eight hundred high school students to the auditorium of Shoemaker High School, Mr. Smith here welcomed citizens from every walk of life - from former students to the Governor of Virginia - who sought to honor their old friend. Tributes were ended by presenting the superintendent with a silver loving cup representing his 50- year effort toward better education.

           With his record of service approached by no other Virginia educator, W. D. Smith retired July 1, 1937, to his farm. He took many memories with him. 

           Before the day of the automobile, Professor Smith visited schools by horseback. Using such transportation, he was once chased by a racer snake; and later struck by a ricocheting bullet meant for a slaughter bound hog.

           His friends and associates believed him to be capable of teaching almost any skill by example - except penmanship -

           His favorite spectator sport was boxing; his favorite boxer was James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett. Once on a business trip to Richmond, Professor Smith met Corbett, and later corresponded with the one-time heavyweight champion of the world -

           He worked for equality in a day when little existed. Mr. Smith once visited Virginia's governor to speak in behalf of a native Scott County Negro who had been convicted of first degree murder. The man's sentence was duly commuted, but according to one newspaperman, "only death could obtain his pardon" -

           A great admirer of President Grover Cleveland, Smith had opportunity to visit him once in the White House. He sought to secure the appointment of a fellow Democrat as postmaster in Gate City. Upon welcoming Cleveland to a Democratic gathering in Eastern Virginia two years later, Smith was pleasantly surprised when President Cleveland not only remembered their past association, but also inquired about the fortunes of the Gate City postmaster, who had received the appointment Smith had sought for him. From then, a large portrait of the "Veto President" was displayed in the front garrett window of the Smith home, causing more than a few passers-by to look twice before advancing -

           During the last days of May, 1938, the Smith household was a den of activity. Preparations were underway for a large reception in honor of W. D. Smith's seventy-eighth birthday. Friends and relatives were invited for refreshments and reminiscences on the lawn. Twenty-four hours before the guests were to arrive, Mr. Smith died of a heart attack. The guests did arrive; not to celebrate, but to mourn the passing of a man who during his lifetime was perhaps more closely associated with the growth and progress of Scott County than any other man. He rests today beside his wife in the yard of the Baptist Church they helped to build and serve.

           Their eldest son, W. D., Jr., was placed beside them in 1959. Better known as "Rex," he became a legendary figure in world wide news gathering and public relations. In 1931 he became a foreign news editor for the Associated Press. During the four years before the Franco uprising, he was Associated Press bureau chief in Madrid, Spain. He later became managing editor of Newsweek and editor of the Chicago Sun. He organized the Air Transport Command public relations program in World War II. In 1957 he edited an anthology of stories about bull-fighting titled Biography of the Bulls. He served as Vice-President of American Airlines in charge of Public Relations for twelve years before his death. It was his wish to be buried beside his parents who had inspired his life and career.

           Their youngest son, Howard Chandler, died in 1970. A prominent surgeon and urologist, he had served on the staff of Church Home and Hospital and the Johns Hopkins and Union Memorial Hospitals until the time of his death.

           Two of W. D. Smith's children are still living; Rhea, a retired government worker, in Falls Church, Virginia; and Sallie Lou (Mrs. Ernest R. Wolfe), a school teacher retired after thirty-three years of service, at the Smith homeplace.

           For those who knew him, the memory of his courage, good sense, drive, and wit lives on. I am one who knows him only through these memories of others for he died five years before I was born. Yet, he still must have wielded some unseen influence over my life - for five years ago I became a teacher in the Scott County schools, and enjoy my job much as I am sure my grandfather, W. D. Smith, enjoyed his.

 

      Bibliography

 

      Books

           Tyler, Dr. Lyon G., Editor-in-chief, Men of Mark in Virginia, Volume III, Men of Mark Publishing Company, Washington, D. C., 1907, pp 378-381.

      Newspapers

      New York Herald Tribune, "Rex Smith is Dead, Writer and Public Relations Man," May 18, 1959

           The Gate City Herald, "Hundreds Honor Supt. W. D. Smith," Volume XXI:

      No. 13, October 29, 1936, page 1

           The Gate City Herald, "Splendid Tribute Paid W. D. Smith by H. W. Fugate." Volume XXV: No. 32, March 18, 1937, page 1

           The Gate City Herald, "W. D. Smith, Scott Leader, Succumbs." Volume XXVI: No. 42, June 2, 1938, page 1

           The Gate City Herald, "Great Throng at Funeral Rites of W. D. Smith." Volume XXVI: No. 43, June 9, 1938, page 1.

      Other Sources

           The greatest part of W. D. Smith's biography was taken from the aging contents of three scrapbooks - labeled personal, educational, and political - which were assembled by Mr. Smith during his lifetime from many sources - sources this writer is unable to recognize or trace. These three volumes now belong to his daughter, Mrs. Ernest R. Wolfe, and may be viewed at his home in the Yuma community.

Home ] Up ] 5-Confederates ] Kilgore Ft. House ] Catholicism ] Rafting ] Long Hunters ] Dr. McConnell ] Spartan Band ] Hanging Sheriffs ] [ W.D. Smith ] Frontier Forts ] Chief Benge ] James Boone ] Old Mills ] Whites Forge ] Whiteforge Post Office ] Samuel Smith ] James Shoemaker ] Jane and Polly ] Indian Missionary ] Patrick Porter ] Phillips Killing ] Boone Trail ] Stoney Creek Baptist ] Methodism ] Daniel Boone ] Estil Cemetery ] Scott Co. Names ] Confederate Soldiers ] Drayton Hale ] Reids Normal School ] Dr. N. Stallard ] Indian Forays ]