Hugh Frank Smith
May 15, 1915 – March 2, 2006
The Commercial Appeal, March 2, 2006
Hugh Frank Smith worked for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and was a fixture in the Germanton horse community. He attended Howard College and was a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He entered the Navy in WWII.
Smith’s name was well-known in the community, from those who passed his Horse & Pony Farm on Poplar Pike east of Hacks Cross to the people who read his homespun, down-to-earth newspaper columns in the Commercial Appeal and the Germantown News titled “Man of the House”. His last column in The Commercial Appeal appeared on Dec. 16 when he recalled Christmas memories from the various farms where he lived during his life.
Smith, who opposed development on his 36 acres, was also a community activist. His fight against industrial development near his home helped earn him the 1986 Citizen of the Year Award from the Germantown Lions Club.
Memorial Tribute to Hugh Frank Smith
By daughter Sunde Smith
My Dad, who passed away last week at the age of 90, was never an elderly man. His interests and his friends spanned generations and all walks of life. His curiosity about life, from the small moments to the momentous ones, was insatiable. But he especially savored the small moments….his dog Lizzie gobbling up a box of holiday chocolates, the duck who took up with our dog, the Purple Martins which finally arrived in his gourds after years of trial and error, the blue eggs laid by his Araucana hens, the first yellow Jasmine to bloom in the spring, his rides to school in the 1920s in a horse-drawn buggy with his older sister Nan, his Mama’s Christmas fruitcake, or a child’s bemused look when he gently corrected her. He could spin the slimmest of life’s moments into a fully fleshed story and make us all smile or reflect. He could stop the harried world for a second or so and make people observe their community from a fresh perspective.
In his last year, when his steps slowed a bit, but his mind and will did not waiver, he began to read even more than usual. He decided he had never read the Bible from beginning to end. So, he did. And he took it a step further. He attended a Bible study group with his forty-year-old friend Jimbo Burrow. Then he took to rereading the classics. He even inquired about enrolling in an English Lit class at the University of Memphis. He was a fixture at the Germantown Library. He didn’t just read casually. He kept a dictionary by his chair to look up words whose meaning eluded him, or he would “Google” a question on his computer. If he had a question, he had to have an answer, ‘Now’.
Dad always told me that his Papa, who was born poor on a back roads Alabama farm, taught him that you are rich if you read. Books were that family’s bank account, and all five children were educated and entered successful professions.
My Dad cherished the past, but he also embraced the future. I finally convinced him email would not replace the handwritten notes he loved as much as augmenting them. He finally agreed to get a computer and began to correspond with gusto to long-lost friends and relatives, to football fans, to readers of his column, and to my sister and myself even though we saw him daily. He loved his email and he loved to read newspapers from around the country online. But he never felt it replaced the feel in his hands of real newspapers, which he gathered from his driveway each morning the minute all three of them were dropped by the front gate.
My Dad loved a lot in life. He loved Rachael, his wife of more than 50 years, most of all. The way he treated her during her long slow descent from Alzheimer’s should be a model for all caregivers. Until her death ten years ago, he kept her at the center of his life and our life. He treated her as if nothing had changed. He included her in conversations, took her with him wherever he went, patted her hand and brushed her hair, and took to task anyone who tried to walk into the room without giving her a hearty hello and a hug or a handshake.
My Dad’s priority was always family, closely followed by his beloved Germantown farm where he had lived since 1953, the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, whose games he had attended regularly since the 1940s, and the Democratic Party. But there were other loves. Travel. He accompanied my children and me on every vacation. You say the word “road trip” and my Dad was in the car with his lunch packed, a towel spread over his knees so he could start eating the minute we pulled from the carport and a small notebook tucked in his pocket so he could jot down his observations as we traveled. He quizzed my daughters on things we saw and played games with them on the long summertime drives to New Hampshire or North Carolina. The trips would always produce fodder for several columns once he returned.
My Dad also loved flowers. There is hardly a foot of his farm without a flowering bush or a vine or a flowerbed that he did not plant by hand. Every spring he would return from local nurseries with flat after flat of new bedding plants. He insisted on installing and tending flowerbeds all along Poplar Pike in front of his farm. Passersby would honk a greeting as he was hunched over, pulling weeds from those beds in the hot summer sun. I would ask why he worried so over those flowers when he could simply focus on those outside his window in easy view of his rocking chair. He said he wanted people to have something beautiful to look at as they drove by. He added American flags on flagpoles and when vandals ripped them down, a kind neighbor finally installed them higher and out of harms’ way.
My Dad loved people. He loved all sorts of people. And he remembered them. He wrote down their names. He wrote down their birthdays. He kept track of events in their lives. He remembered them in his columns, always including the names of those he quoted or those who had sparked the idea for the column. I spent my childhood visiting elderly friends with him at Christmas. We wouldn’t just ring the doorbell and drop off a present. We would sit down and visit, as if we had all day and were just rocking on an old front porch swing on a soft summer afternoon. In recent years, his housekeeper, Mary Watson, was kept busy baking chicken potpies or lemon icebox pies for dozens of friends and neighbors. No occasion was too small. He sent thank you notes for any kindness he received, or a basket of blue-hued eggs gathered from his henhouse that morning. He called the morning after a lunch or dinner engagement or just a visit from someone …to thank them. I found a note yesterday in his phone book under the heading, “Walking.” He had written down the names of two neighbors who stopped him for a chat while he was walking on Poplar Pike a year ago and how he met them. One was riding a bicycle and one was mowing his lawn. I would venture to say he called them the next day and maybe even brought over a pie.
My Dad loved words and especially humorous ones. He would get so wrapped up in his own jokes that he couldn’t get the words out over his own laughter. One day recently I walked in to find him doubled over with tears running down his face. I thought he was in horrible pain. He was simply on the telephone reveling in a good joke with one of his favorite friends from the Alabama football tailgate group.
My Dad was a gentleman and a man of manners. He believed in calling people Mr. or Mrs., using “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” if he did not know them well, regardless of their age, and one of his few pet peeves was for casual acquaintances to call him by his first name. He would tell you when you could call him by his nickname “Buge.” And that was very special. My 12-year-old daughter, Rachael, recently delivered her fifth-grade speech at school on the subject of her grandfather and the meaning of the word “respect.” She chose it because her grandfather had taught her the special importance of good manners and respecting people and oneself. He was able to attend that speech just a few weeks ago.
In the eerie early morning hours following his death at the hospital, I returned to Dad’s house and began sifting through the many folders he kept crammed with ideas for columns. One clipping caught my eye. It was a New Yorker piece from 2003 on the death of a family’s beloved 97-year-old uncle who had been forever healthy, so everyone assumed the end would never come. When it did, they agonized over the fact that they had not queried their uncle on events of his long life. Dad often mentioned his regret over never asking his own father about the changing world during the nine decades of his life. Dad had scribbled some notes in the margins of this article. He wrote the words “No Fear” which I hope meant he did not fear death. He also jotted a line that his daughters had not asked him questions or taped conversations and that we probably did not even know he moved to Memphis because he missed his bus connection to Anniston, Alabama, and used the time to land a job at the Memphis Press-Scimitar where he stayed until it closed in 1983.
Dad, you are wrong. We did know that story and every other story you so lovingly shared with us and the rest of the community, not only in those wonderfully warm weekly columns but also in all the encounters we ever had with you. You were the consummate storyteller. You were forever chronicling your thoughts and your actions and your own life’s story. You told us what mattered to you and who mattered and what their names were….your housekeeper Mary Watson, your cranky Corgi Lizzie, your wife Rachael (Rachael Ainsworth Smith 1912-1996) and her beloved horse Shannon, your driver to 104 football games, Jay Dolan; your breakfast club companions, Bobbie and Maggie Hollabaugh and Frances Smith; your cat Jamie, your favorite niece Martha, your older sister Nan, your daughters Sunde and Melanie, your granddaughters Elena, Flori, Rachael and Susannah…. and all the hundreds of other friends and family and acquaintances whose names graced your columns over the years. You chronicled an entire era…more than a half-century…of small-town America. We remember. Oh, how we remember. And I can see you now…pen and scissors in hand, sifting through and clipping one newspaper or magazine article after another and making notes in the margins. We are all waiting for that next column. Roll Tide!