Celebrating a Life: The Frank F. Smith, Jr. Memorial Scholarship

Frank Smith 4In March 16, 1960, just one quarter of a mile from his hometown of Stapleton in Baldwin County, a 17-year-old junior at Baldwin County High School, Frank Ferrell Smith Jr., was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in his death. He was tall (6’ 3”), athletic (played basketball and football), musical (a percussionist), handsome and popular. He was in possession of those qualities that make for a successful life: he had completed all the merit badges to make Eagle Scout, lacking only his service project (those of us familiar with scouting recognize that feat); he was a member of the Key Club…(Key Club is a high school service organization sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. The reason I mention this is that by the 1960s at Baldwin County High School under the leadership of Judge John White, the Key Club there won annual awards for being one of the best clubs in the nation); and Frank Jr. was also president of the Baldwin County district of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Perhaps a window into his winsome personality and quality of character would be the following: in 1957, the Smith family moved from northwest Alabama to Baldwin County the week before school started…not an easy thing for kids to do. Frank Jr. entered a new school in Bay Minette as a 9th grader, not knowing anyone. One year later, he was elected sophomore class president by students with whom he had been a total stranger only a year earlier. That, I would submit, speaks volumes — such a promising life.

I can only imagine what Frank Jr.’s death did to the Smith family. Parents are not supposed to bury their children; children are supposed to bury their parents.

Sometime later, Frank Jr.’s mother, Florence Smith, established a scholarship at the University of Mobile in honor of her son. It was the first privately funded “loan for students” to be established at UMobile, according to then-university president Dr. William K. Weaver Jr. It was later converted to an endowed scholarship with the following qualifications: Scholarships are to be awarded to any student whose academic record and extracurricular behavior reflect (a) high moral character; (b) high academic performance and (c) demonstrated musical, athletic or leadership ability. We could say that Mrs. Smith started the scholarship program that later became known as Endowed Scholarships.

This is perhaps in keeping with the values of the Smith family. They have always embraced education and service.

Florence Moss Smith, a native of Mobile, graduated from Duke University in 1932. She took honors in English, was secretary of the senior class, a member of Chi Delta Phi literary honor society, and sang with the Duke Chapel Choir. After graduation, she returned to Mobile and taught at Baker Elementary School for a period before returning to Duke University, first, as secretary to the University Press and, then, as director of student religious activities at the Woman’s College there. She married Frank Ferrell Smith in 1941 and after the war located to Stapleton, AL with their three boys, Frank Jr., Howard and James. She resumed a career in elementary education in 1960 before retiring in 1973. She supported the arts, taught music to her classes, patronized local businesses, and was Mom par excellent sending regular care packages, which consisted of homemade bread, cookies, gingerbread, molasses cake and fruitcake, to Howard in Vietnam and James away at college.

Frank Ferrell Smith, a native of Andrews, NC, graduated from Duke University in 1933 with honors; he also took master’s degrees from Yale University and again from Duke University. He worked in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for the Forestry Service in Arizona and Texas before (a) getting Florence Moss to agree to marry him (I think he had to propose twice); and (b) going off to war where he served both in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters as a Navy lieutenant. In 1944 and 1945, he was executive officer (2nd in command) of a U.S.S. landing ship that made nine landings on those dreadful islands in the Pacific, made all the more graphic by Eugene Sledge’s book, “With the Old Breed,” that became a documentary series.

After World War II, Mr. Smith became associate forester at Auburn (the school didn’t officially become ”Auburn University” until 1960 – it was still “Alabama Polytechnic Institute” when Mr. Smith attended) and then went to Fayette where he ran the forestry experimental station for 10 years. He became head forester for the Baldwin County properties of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in 1957, moved to Stapleton, and worked until retirement in 1974. You might wonder, what in the world does a coal and iron company need with woods? It is as simple as this: coal mines needed great timbers in order to be safe and secure. Mr. Smith saw to it that the wood was abundant and useful.

Some might say, to borrow a phrase from Randy Pausch’s book “The Last Lecture,” that the Smith boys won the parent lottery. Think about it…parents with degrees from Duke and Yale… only about 10 percent of women in the United States went to college in 1930. That put Mrs. Smith in an elite class. And to graduate with a master’s from Yale University — well, that is impressive. It suggests that the Smiths valued education.

Christianity was part and parcel of the Smith household. Not only were the boys raised in the Methodist Church, they were active in leadership roles. Mr. Smith read from the Bible each night at supper; if the selection was from one of Paul’s letters, he might “[…] give a few unflattering remarks about the convoluted sentence structure.” (Don’t ever try to diagram a Pauline sentence, you will go nuts!) Mrs. Smith was not preachy, but had a strong Christian faith and love of others — namely, family, neighbors and students.

You get the picture….Here was a family who believed in education, practiced their faith in a quiet but effective manner, was gifted and athletic, and served others and their country.

Having gone to school with the Smith brothers, I remember Howard well in high school. He was a senior sprinter on the track team and I was a young 7th or 8th grader….Back then grades 1-12 were all on the same grounds, not in the same classroom, mind you — (you would need to go back another 50-60 years for that). I somehow managed to have 6th period P.E. with the high school guys, so I literally thrilled to watch Howard turn the corner on the 220 or 200 meter sprint. He could pick them up and put them down, as we used to say — he was fast. His senior year he never lost a race in the 100, 220, and 440 relay teams. He was one of my heroes. With military in his family, it was little wonder that Howard volunteered for service in Vietnam, became a helicopter pilot, and even volunteered for extended tours of duty. Piloting a “chopper” in Vietnam was about as dangerous as it got. Howard went on to make a career flying the helicopter, from fighting fires to transporting people and goods. His best fortune, however, may have been in getting Clara Jo Hastie…affectionately known to everyone as “Punkin”…to marry him. You have to be one of the good guys to marry “Punkin” — and they have been married for 47 years.

James was a serious student, Phi Beta Kappa, graduated cum laude with honors from Sewanee, The University of the South, before completing law school at Vanderbilt University, and did a stint in the Navy along the way. I remember James well because he spent some Sunday afternoons at our house. He was a leader, respected by all his classmates, the kind of guy that you hoped your daughter not only would bring home but would manage to keep. Well, he was rewarded supremely by getting Sherrie Ballard to say yes…on the first proposal, at that. They have been married some 42 years; he has been practicing law in Fairhope forever.

What Florence Smith did to remember a son whose life was cut much too short, in essence, has caused us to remember not only him but a wonderful family whose contributions to God, others and the world ought to be remembered, celebrated, and even imitated.

For information on how to establish an endowed scholarship at the University of Mobile, please contact the Office of Development at 251.442.2223.

About the Author

Dr. Ted Mashburn

Dr. Ted Mashburn is Associate Dean of the University of Mobile College of Arts & Sciences, as well as Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Humanities. This former college linebacker is an Oxford graduate who calls himself “a blue collar theologian” and has served as a missionary living in Israel and working with Palestinian Arabs. His specialties include hermeneutics (the interpretation of ancient and biblical texts), Platonic dialogues, world religions and critical thinking. His personal studies resulted in the publication of articles on early and medieval Christian writers, as well as scribe and scripture in the New Testament. Through courses like “God, Evil, and Suffering” and biennial trips to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Dr. Mashburn encourages students to discover who they are in relation to God, others and the world.