A life well lived

Longtime Baldwin educator, historian Robert Leslie Smith laid to rest Monday in Stockton

By John Underwood
Posted 8/9/17

STOCKTON — Veteran, longtime educator and local historian Robert Leslie Smith was laid to rest Monday at Stockton Memorial Cemetery with many of his former students and Baldwin County educators …

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A life well lived

Longtime Baldwin educator, historian Robert Leslie Smith laid to rest Monday in Stockton

Posted

STOCKTON — Veteran, longtime educator and local historian Robert Leslie Smith was laid to rest Monday at Stockton Memorial Cemetery with many of his former students and Baldwin County educators attending the service, and the visitation on Sunday at Norris Funeral Home in Bay Minette.

“It’s just so good to see that he was so well loved and respected by people he gave so much of his time and talents to,” said cousin Claudia Slaughter Campbell. “He just led such an interesting life and had so many varied interests.”

Smith, a native and resident of the North Baldwin community of Latham died Aug. 2 at North Baldwin Infirmary in Bay Minette at the age of 99.

The son of Robert Augustus Smith and Sue Byrne Bryars Smith, he was also preceded in death by a brother, Gordon Hays Smith. While he never married or had children of his own, Campbell said he was loved dearly by many cousins, friends and former students and teachers.

“Everyone he ever met was his family,” Campbell said. “He befriended so many people through education, history and his many interests from gardening to antique cars.”

The services were also attended by members of a local antique car club, Campbell said, who brought examples of many of the cars Smith worked on and owned through the years.

Born July 19, 1918, Smith grew up in Latham in the home built by his father. He was a life-long member of the Latham United Methodist Church, attended grammar school in Latham and Stockton, and graduated from Baldwin County High School in 1936.

He attended Daphne State Normal School for Teachers from 1936 to 1938 and received his bachelor’s degree in education from Livingston State Teachers College (now the University of West Alabama). He received his master’s in education from Peabody College in Nashville, and worked toward a doctorate in education from Columbia University in New York. He received an honorary doctorate in education from Livingston University (UWA) in 1982.

He began his career with the Baldwin County School System in 1938 teaching in Elberta and Loxley schools before being called to the U.S. Navy serving during World War II from 1941 to 1943 aboard the USS President Adams.

Because of his love of and proficiency with numbers, Campbell said, he was able to rise to a command position, earning the rank of lieutenant senior grade.

He shared many vivid memories in his book, “Gone to the South Pacific,” including seeing the flag raised at Iwo Jima from his station aboard ship.

He returned to Baldwin County to teach at Foley High School in 1945, earning an assistant principal position in 1950, then served as principal from 1955 to 1966.

“Back then the principal was over all the school since my mother taught at the elementary level for a number of years, he was always a good friend to our family,” said Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell.

In 1966, Smith was chosen to be Superintendent of Buildings and Transportation, promoted to Superintendent of Education in 1981 where he served until his retirement in 1985.

Russell transferred to Foley High from St. Benedict his senior year, 1966, and while he was Smith was not principal at FHS during that time, he had many dealings with him as a student during Smith’s tenure with the school system.

Russell’s wife Sandy was a student at Foley under Smith’s tenure and later served served as a teacher and counselor for Foley High School. Her father, Paul Schultz, also served with Smith as a member of the school board, Russell said.

“Sandy and I always thought the world of (Smith),” Russell said, “and he will truly be missed by all of his Foley family.”

After retirement, Smith continued to be involved in community and county projects and showed great interest in those around him. He was a member of Rotary International, an avid Antique Car Club member, and was one of the founders of the Elberta Heritage Museum in south Baldwin County. He generously donated items to this museum as well as the Baldwin County Bicentennial Park, Baldwin County Archives and History, The World War II Museum in New Orleans, The University of South Alabama Archaeological and History Museum, and the Stockton Heritage Museum. He participated in the filming and recording of early Baldwin County History through the County Commission for present and future generations. He was a board member for Historic Blakeley State Park in Spanish Fort, assisted with the recovery of an 1860’s Goliath Mortar from the waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and was featured in the film completed by the National Park Service, The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, America’s Amazon. 

An avid reader and historian, Smith was the author of four books: “Cemeteries are for the Living,” written for the benefit of his cousins; “Gone to the Swamp,” a collection of times along the rivers in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta; “Gone to the South Pacific,” personal memories aboard the USS President Adams during WWII; and “Rock On, Rock On, Rock On,” an account of a friend and neighbor who worked for Smith’s family during the 1920s. All proceeds from the final three books were directed to be donated to the Stockton Civic Club.

“He was truly one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” said Lynn Bozone, director of the Stockton Civic Club. “He is going to be missed by a lot of people and I think a lot of people are going to wish they had paid closer attention to him when he talked because no one knew more than he did about the history of this area.”

Smith received many honors during his lifetime from the State of Alabama, the Baldwin County Board of Education, the Baldwin County Commission, and numerous other groups and organizations. The latest was the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor Award given for outstanding leadership, service, patriotism, and trustworthiness.

Donations in Smith’s name have been requested to be made to the Latham United Methodist Church, 6007 Alabama 59, Stockton, AL 36579.