D. Smith (1861-1938)
By Jayne W. Carte
William Daniel and Elizabeth Smith
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.
hoto of the William A. and Elizabeth Chandler
Birthplace of W. D. Smith
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
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
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 ounty. 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 ducated 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 prosppective
employee as a charmin 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
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
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
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
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
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 - 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 1857 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
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
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.
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,
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,
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.
HSSV Publication 8, 1974, pages 26 to 35.