Scott County Historical
Scott County, Virginia
SKETCHES OF SOUTHWEST
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Tyler, Dr. Lyon G., Editor-in-chief, Men of Mark in Virginia,
Volume III, Men of Mark Publishing Company, Washington, D. C., 1907, pp
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,"
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.
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.