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Corn, Vehicles, Catawba, Law and Home: Five Words Hold Special Meaning to Barrister Franklin Smith

March 20, 2009

Category: Academics, Alumni, English, History & Politics, Theatre Arts


Franklin SmithIf you talk a while with attorney Franklin Smith of Elkin, North Carolina, he is likely to touch on five words that hold a very special meaning for him. In his deep, resonant Southern voice, honed through years of practice in the courtroom, he will probably explain exactly why these words figure so prominently in his life.

A Memory of Corn
First, Smith might tell you about his amazing corn crop, the one which still ranks among his "proudest achievements." He was the "fourth in line" of eight children raised on a 100-acre farm in the Benham Community of Wilkes County.

At age 10 and while a member of the local 4-H Club, the County Agent "picked me out and asked me to raise the first acre of corn." Smith says he "picked out the best acre of land and grew the corn in the perfect season with rain when we needed it." The corn, which he meticulously planted in rows three feet apart with stalks six inches apart and seeds two inches deep, thrived and developed three to five healthy ears per stalk. "People came from all over and walked way around the acre just to see the corn," he remembers. His acre produced 109.5 shelled bushels of corn when the average for an acre then was only 10 shelled bushels.

Now more than 60 years later, Smith still remembers his corn crop and seems to share it as one of his personal parables of what hard, meticulous work can accomplish for an individual – even a 10-year-old farm boy like he was.

Vehicles Helped Him Get from There to Here
During a three-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, Smith served in Korea between 1952 and 1953. He was trained at Fort Jackson, N.C., and then shipped to Korea and sent north of Seoul to Old Baldy (south of Old Baldy). While there, he was assigned to oversee a motor pool and its 190 vehicles and he earned the National Defense Service Medal - Good Conduct Medal - Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation - A Korean Service Medal-Two Bronze Service Stars – A Meritorious Unit Commendation – and a United Nations Service Medal. He never made Private First Class; his first promotion was a battlefield promotion to Sergeant. After Korea, he was assigned to Fort Benning and sent to an advanced leadership school.

He learned a good deal about vehicles while in the Army and after his discharge, he enrolled at Catawba, sight unseen, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. His Korean motor pool experience served him well during his college years. Smith landed a job at a Texaco station in downtown Salisbury and worked there between 4 p.m. and midnight seven days a week while attending classes at Catawba. His work schedule, he notes, "accounts for my lower grades in my early years at Catawba," but the extra money he earned was welcomed and necessary since he was a young Army veteran, making it on his own.

Catawba College
Smith majored in political science and minored in English and dramatics at Catawba. One of his most influential professors was Dr. Burnet Hobgood, a dramatics instructor and head of the debate team, whom he describes as "top drawer."

Hobgood, Smith remembers, assigned him and fellow Southerner, Harold Powell of Mocksville and now a graduate of the Wake Forest School of Law, to debate students from the North. "Powell and I gladly took up the chore and carried the South's side," Smith says. Their successful debating skills landed the two young men slots on the college debate team. They were then selected by Hobgood and "Commander" Professor George W. Greene to serve in the State Student Legislature, representing Catawba College.

Other Catawba professors were remembered by Smith with equal fondness, including Dr. Raymond Jenkins, Dr. David Faust and Dr. Bruce Wentz. All of them, Smith describes as "great professors."

Vehicles Figure in His Life Again
While a student at Catawba, Smith completed practice teaching in Granite Quarry. Nearing graduation, he set about trying to find a teaching position back home in Wilkes County. "I went to see the superintendent, C.V. Eller, about teaching English, history and sociology, and he said they didn't have any jobs teaching those subjects. He told me the only job they had in the county was teaching driver's education. I got my driver's education certification at Catawba and got that job in Wilkes County."

Thanks to Mr. Gaddy who owned a Chevrolet dealership in Wilkes County, Smith received a new 1958 Chevrolet and a gas card to use in his driver's education job. He also met his wife Lena during this time and after their marriage, they became parents of four daughters who later graduated magna cum laude in English from Wake Forest, Catawba and Lenoir-Rhyne. Today, the Smiths have two granddaughters and two grandsons.

Smith taught driver's education in his home county for three years, but he had his sights set on bigger things -- he wanted to go to law school at Wake Forest University. Thanks to his job as a driver's education instructor, he saved enough money to pay for his first year of law school.

"When you go to Catawba and Wake Forest, there isn't anybody any better than you," Smith quips. "I've been taught by the best people at Catawba and Wake Forest that were ever assembled in the South."

Law and Home
After earning his law degree from Wake Forest, Smith was torn about where to go to begin his practice. He toyed with the idea of going "down East," but he received some advice he still remembers from "the great Carroll Weathers, dean of the Wake Forest School of Law," who told him:  "Franklin, it would take you 10 years down East to build up the good will you'll have when you go home."

Smith did go home and worked for a year for Attorney Charlie Neeves, solicitor for Surry, Stokes, Caswell and Rockingham counties in the 23rd Judicial District. After that, he set himself up in Elkin in private practice and the clients came, many of whom knew him from his driver's education days.

"Nobody is more respected than lawyers. No one plays as vital a role in the community as a lawyer and you have to believe that, and you have to live it," Smith explains.

Smith has practiced law in his home county for 46 years. After 18 years of practice, Judge Thomas Seay of Spencer, N.C., said of Smith at a statewide judicial conference that Smith had tried more cases than anyone else alive or dead. Smith has argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and six cases before the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond. He has also argued cases before the Federal Tax Court. Smith and his law clerks have written over 237 briefs before the appellant courts. "The practice of law is not for the faint of heart," he notes.

His law practice, once housed in rented quarters next to the Elkin Tribune, is now housed in "the Dutch Castle" in Elkin. The landmark, 1920s era building, located on North Bridge Street, was one that Smith bought at public auction and then meticulously restored to the delight of his fellow citizens. Smith's office is recognized on sight and by reputation despite the lack of signs or any other advertisement.

Smith Establishes Scholarship at Catawba
It is with thoughts of his home and the importance of his own education that Smith has recently established a scholarship at Catawba College. The future recipients of the Franklin Delano Smith Endowed Scholarship Fund shall major in English and Pre-Law and may also minor in drama, music or foreign language, with qualified individuals from Wilkes, Surry and Yadkin counties being given priority consideration.

Smith says that future students from his three-county home area deserve the opportunity to receive a college education just like he had. "If they are 6'6" and weigh 250-330 pounds, and have a voice like the great Orsen Wells or Harold Powell of Mocksville, they can play the role of Henry IV. If they are 6'4", sandy-headed, and if their reputation precedes him being the mightiest warrior of the north, then he can play Hotspur. If they are tall, slender, and lean, they can play the mighty crown, Prince Hal, and have a side kick by the name of Poins. If they are 6'2", stand tall and weigh 180 pounds and have a deep, resonant, Southern voice, they may cast [the student] to play the stage manager in the Thornton Wilder's class, "Our Town," " Smith jokes.

"Franklin Smith is a man whose hard work and effort have benefitted his community. Thanks to his generosity and foresight, future students from his area will be able to excel and thrive at his beloved Catawba," says Catawba College Senior Vice President Tom Childress.


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