|W. D. Smith (1861-1938)
By Jayne W. Carter
was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, June 1, 1861, fifty days
the first encounter of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
been married in 1858. His father, William A. Smith, was of French
His mother, Elizabeth Virginia Chandler, was descended from a
Scotch-Irish family of Eastern Virginia and was related to the
of New Hampshire and Texas.
to the birth of their first son, W. D., William A. Smith offered
for military service with the Mecklenburg County 59th Regiment of
Volunteers, called the Overland Grays. Entering as a private, he
officer's rank during his three years of enlistment and saw
service with his company on many of
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,
William Smith stood washing powder stains from his face. He was
shot by a Union sniper and fell
his young wife's name. Death came mercifully soon, thus sealing his
to the South with his life's blood.
Mrs. Smith was
a twenty-five year old widow with three children; W. D., O. M. and
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,
brought his family to live in Scott County, Virginia, near the
Snowflake community. To the family were
born five children: Delight, Elizabeth, Dora, Logan, and J. A.
It has been
that W. D. Smith inherited many of his strong characteristics from his
mother, who exerted a great influence in his early life. She was
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;
children drew these traits from her.
Young W. D.
like many other Confederate orphans left without means, was entirely
for education and success in life upon his fortitude and energy. After
attending limited private schools for some years, he entered
Academy located in the nearby county seat of Estillville. The school
then under the efficient management of Professor John B. Harr.
the Academy marked an era in his life. He found himself surrounded with
young men who had enjoyed far better educational advantages than he;
by diligent study and exact performance of every duty assigned him, he
had soon proved his worth. By thorough work and rapid progress, the
scholar earned the respect, confidence, and friendship of his
was soon interrupted by an event which seemed to erase all hope of
self-improvement. His stepfather, a stone-mason by trade, moved from
vicinity of Estillville Academy into a distant community. If young
were to continue his studies at the Academy, he would now be
required to pay both tuition and board.
was without money, and there was no one to advance it to him. He left
and went with his family to their new home.
disturbed by his sudden absence. He had observed Smith to be an
untiring student and now resolved to seek his return to school. Upon
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
Harr's generous offer, Smith returned to school. He had no need to
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
continued to encourage his efforts by visiting him frequently on the
and providing him with a supply of interesting reading materials.
the Academy course, he attended Hamilton Institute at Mendota,
for three years. He began his career in 1880 by serving as a public
teacher for six years. As an instructor, he was eminently successful;
possessed a facility for inspiring his students to a love of
study and attention to detail.
As a teacher
began to determine the educational needs of Scott County. In 1886 he
given an opportunity to put his findings into action, for in that year
he was appointed superintendent of Scott County schools, a job he
his efforts toward for the next fifty-one years. His success may best be
measured by the improvement which
the quality of education in his county from 1886 until 1937.
In 1886, due
the arrival of the first train in Estillville, Scott County began to
in population. The people desired an improved free public school
and they chose twenty-six year old Professor W. D. Smith to inaugurate
and conduct such a system.
He found, upon
his duties, that teachers with a good general education were
Ladies did not teach because it was generally conceded that a woman
be unable to "lay on the lash" as effectively as a man. Therefore,
preachers, and others desiring work during late fall and early winter
hired to teach for $75.00 per term, if that sum became available from
county treasury. Curriculum included reading, writing, spelling,
grammar, geography, and history - offered in direct proportion to the
ability to diagram the sentences and solve the sums.
was convinced of the fact that qualified teachers were essential for
educational improvement he sought. He turned to the previously
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
were developed and inspired; new teachers, including women, entered the
profession with a spirit of innovation and progress. Often having one
per cent of his teachers in attendance at the summer institutes, the
was able to break the former bondage of teacher to textbook and thus
the spirit of inquiry. He also added dignity to the profession by
scholarship standards for certification and by inducing school trustees
to raise teacher's salaries. Teaching in the public school in Scott
now became a first-choice life work rather than a spare-time diversion
to be endured for extra cash.
Other work lay
Professor Smith. Upon becoming Superintendent, he found Scott County
property valued at $2000. Building were makeshift affairs, in that
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
The pupil of 1886 knew all about split-log seats, the open fireplace,
rudely constructed chalkboard, and an eraser that consisted of a
saw these conditions as a detriment to the ambition of Scott County's
scholars. He began supplanting existing schools with neat frame and
buildings erected in accordance with approved plans of school
so that when he left office in 1937, county school property was valued
at nearly $700,000. Also, in 1937, nine thousand children were
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,
Virginia had more children in school in proportion to the number of
than any other part of the state.
efforts of W. D. Smith were not confined to elementary and secondary
He was an effective worker in securing the establishment in 1897 of
College in Estillville, and he served as president of its board of
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
The story of
Smith's educational career is incomplete without reference to his
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
efforts to rise above the humble circumstances into which they, like
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
His reward was seeing these young citizens enter the service of
in their chosen professions.
W. D. Smith
remarkably successful as a politician. His tireless, sagacious spirit
him as a party leader; and in 1890 he was made chairman of the
Party in Scott County, a position he held for four years. In 1898 he
appointed a member of the Democratic committee for the Ninth
District, and in 1900 was elected chairman of that committee by the
committee at Norfolk. His executive ability now had a suitable stage
action, and he carried the banner forcefully. Although he faced the
kind of opposition, it has been said he never lost a political fight.
than once his friends and fellow-Democrats sought to reward his
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
It was a
teacher who captured the heart of W. D. Smith. Sallie Lou Minnich,
of Edmond Minnich and Sara Jane Benham, was born December 14, 1865. Of
Scotch-Irish origin, she was a lineal descendant of Peter Livingston,
of the earliest and most illustrious pioneers of Southwest Virginia.
Minnich family made their home in the Early Grove community of Scott,
Washington ounty. Sallie Lou was the first of ten children supported by
her father's 150-acre farm.
was remembered by those who taught her as a rapid learner. She was
at Greenwood Academy, Blountville Academy, and Holston Institute; and
emerged wishing to share with others what she had learned. Naturally,
traveled to the superintendent's office in the county seat seeking her
At first the
superintendent, W. D. Smith, saw this prosppective employee as a
girl. When he administered the oral certification examination, he began
to see a refined woman of knowledge and character. The result of this
meeting was that the superintendent placed Miss Sallie
Minnich in charge of teaching grades
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
interest in the success of each pupil.
to see Miss Minnich as often as time and distance would permit, and
he began to plan for the future. He purchased a sizable farm in the
Community of Scott County upon which he pastured cattle and grew corn
wheat. After preparing the seven-room home located on his property to
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
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.
both Mr. and Mrs. Smith were active in the Missionary Baptist Church.
Mrs. Smith first came to Yuma, the Baptist congregation was pastorless
and holding services in a small schoolhouse. However, by 1914, under
guidance of building committee chairman W. D. Smith, the congregation
built and paid for a $3,000 church graced by five stained-glass
Reverend C. H. Compton became pastor, and W. D. Smith served as a
Mrs. Smith was church clerk and Sunday School superintendent.
The Smith home
known for its hospitality. Mrs. Smith never knew how many people the
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
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
best quality was her desire to help her neighbors when they needed
a quality that her husband heartily approved. In 1927 a young mother of
three living near the Smith home contracted tuberculosis, Mrs. Smith
that at her advancing age of 62 there would be no danger in entering
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
nine months in a private sanitorium, W. D. Smith brought his wife home
apparently completely cured. However, in 1930 Mrs. Smith was stricken
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
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.
grief, Professor Smith continued to carry out his duties as
He concentrated his efforts during the Great Depression of the 1930's
economy of budget, essential to keep schools in operations. Quick to
the drift of economic conditions following the market collapse
in 1929, the superintendent had then
a retrenchment policy that enabled him to pare a total of $100,000 from
the school budget by 1933. Scott County schools remained open.
W. D. Smith discovered that he alone remained in service of the 117
and city school superintendents who took posts in 1886. Calling him the
dean of Virginia's school superintendents, the Virginia Journal of
pointed out the fact that W. D. Smith was the sole
survivor of a small group of
educational leaders in Virginia who had given up their entire lives to
building up the public school systems in their own communities.
had labored for showed its appreciation to Mr. Smith on October 24,
on his fiftieth anniversary as division superintendent. Thirty-five
strong, they paid him homage greater than any other ever accorded a
man in Scott County. Led by a march of eight hundred high
school students to the auditorium of
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.
of service approached by no other Virginia educator, W. D. Smith
July 1, 1937, to his farm. He took many memories with him.
Before the day
the automobile, Professor Smith visited schools by horseback. Using
transportation, he was once chased by a racer snake; and later struck
a ricocheting bullet meant for a slaughter bound hog -
associates believed him to be capable of teaching almost any skill by
- except penmanship -
sport was boxing; his favorite boxer was James J. "Gentleman Jim"
Once on a business trip to Richmond, Professor Smith met Corbett, and
corresponded with the one-time heavyweight champion of the world -
He worked for
in a day when little existed. Mr. Smith once visited Virginia's
to speak in behalf of a native Scott County Negro who had been
of first degree murder. The man's sentence was duly commuted, but
to one newspaperman, "only death could obtain his pardon" -
of President Grover Cleveland, Smith had opportunity to visit him once
in the White House. He sought to secure the appointment of a fellow
as postmaster in Gate City. Upon welcoming Cleveland to a Democratic
in Eastern Virginia two years later, Smith was
pleasantly surprised when President
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
was displayed in the front garrett window of the Smith home, causing
than a few passers-by to look twice before advancing -
days of May, 1938, the Smith household was a den of activity.
were underway for a large reception in honor of W. D. Smith's
birthday. Friends and relatives were invited for refreshments and
on the lawn. Twenty-four hours before the guests were to arrive, Mr.
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
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
helped to build and serve.
W. D., Jr., was placed beside them in 1959. Better known as "Rex," he
a legendary figure in world wide news gathering and public relations.
1931 he became a foreign news editor for the Associated Press. During
four years before the Franco uprising, he was Associated Press bureau
in Madrid, Spain. He later became managing editor of Newsweek and
of the Chicago Sun. He organized the Air Transport Command public
program in World War II. In 1857 he edited an anthology of stories
bull-fighting titled Biography of the Bulls. He served as
of American Airlines in charge of Public Relations for twelve years
his death. It
was his wish to be buried beside his
who had inspired his life and career.
Howard Chandler, died in 1970. A prominent surgeon and urologist, he
served on the staff of Church Home and Hospital and the Johns Hopkins
Union Memorial Hospitals until the time of his death.
Two of W. D.
children are still living; Rhea, a retired government worker, in Falls
Church, Virginia; and Sallie Lou (Mrs. Ernest R. Wolfe), a school
retired after thirty-three years of service, at the Smith homeplace.
For those who
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
influence over my life - for five years ago I became a teacher in the
County schools, and enjoy my job much as I am sure my grandfather, W.
Smith, enjoyed his.
Editor-in-chief, Men of Mark in Virginia, Volume III, Men of Mark
D. C., 1907, pp 378-381.
New York Herald Tribune, "Rex Smith
Writer and Public Relations Man," May 18, 1959
The Gate City
"Hundreds Honor Supt. W. D. Smith," Volume XXI: No. 13, October 29,
The Gate City
"Splendid Tribute Paid W. D. Smith by H. W. Fugate." Volume XXV: No. 32,
The Gate City
"W. D. Smith, Scott Leader, Succumbs." Volume XXVI: No. 42, June 2,
The Gate City
"Great Throng at Funeral Rites of W. D. Smith." Volume XXVI: No. 43,
1938, page 1.
of W. D. Smith's biography was taken from the aging contents of three
- labeled personal, educational, and political - which were assembled
Mr. Smith during his lifetime from many sources - sources this writer
unable to recognize or trace. These three volumes now
belong to his daughter, Mrs. Ernest R.
and may be viewed at his home in the Yuma community.
Sketches of Southwest Virginia, published by the Historical Society of
Southwest Virginia, Publication 8, 1974,
pages 26 to 35.