Inspiring Okeechobee… Sam Smith has ‘no regrets’

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
During his time at Grand Oaks, Sam Smith was able to take part in a fishing trip.

OKEECHOBEE — Sam Smith arrived in Okeechobee in 1973, a 20-year-old man fresh out of college and ready to take on his first official teaching assignment. “He looked like a kid himself,” said his sister-in-law, Susan Smith. Sam’s brother John and his wife, Susan, had moved to Okeechobee in 1972 after John came back from Vietnam. They loved it here, and Sam followed them the next year. He had been in Panama City doing his student teaching and liked it there but was having trouble finding a job.

He was promised a job at the junior high school here, teaching with Susan. He would be teaching social studies while she taught English, but when he arrived, the job had already been given to someone else.

It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, though, because Mike McCranie offered him a job teaching at the old Fifth and Sixth Grade Center teaching sixth grade. “I believe it was meant to be,” said Susan. “He loved it. He had fun with the kids.”

One of the best things about the job was that it brought the family back together again. The Smith family has always been close. Other than the years John was in the service, the brothers have never really been apart. Sam never married or had children, but John’s children were so much a part of his life, they might as well have been his own. John joked that many people in Okeechobee thought Susan was Sam’s wife or sometimes they thought she was Sam’s sister. Susan always referred to Sam as her husband-in-law. Sam was John’s best man at his wedding. He was only 16 at the time and was 5’3” tall. The maid of honor was 6’ tall. “It was quite a sight,” laughed John.

After teaching for several years, Sam wanted to move up into administration, but the parents liked him so much, they fought to keep him in the classroom until their children finished that grade. He was finally able to move up after about six years and became assistant principal at the Fifth and Sixth Grade Center and then moved over to Central Elementary as assistant principal. His next move was to South Elementary as the principal and then to the Okeechobee Junior High School and led the change to Yearling Middle School. He also led the planning and opening of Osceola Middle School, where he then served as principal for two years before making the move to the Okeechobee County School Board as assistant superintendent. His final move was to Indian River Community College, where he served as provost and spent 11 years overseeing many changes (to IRSC) and additions including classes, library, nursing program, home school program, majors and buildings, including Williamson Building, before he retired.

Sam was not able to enjoy his retirement as he had planned because he began developing unusual symptoms. At first, said John, he put it down to just normal aging, although he was only about 60 when the first symptoms began. One of the first things Sam noticed was the balance problems he was having, but no one here seemed to know what was wrong. He was finally diagnosed at Mayo Clinic. It’s called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, or PSP. The condition leads to symptoms including loss of balance, slowing of movement, difficulty moving the eyes.

“It’s like the ultimate Parkinson’s,” said John.

For a while Sam stayed with John and Susan, but then he decided he wanted to go live at Grand Oaks. “He didn’t want to burden us. We wanted him with us, but he wanted to go there,” said John. He had his own room and liked it there. His dog, Annie, was with him, but about five weeks ago, the disease progressed to the point where he needed more care. “He started falling, and it broke our hearts to go farther, but we went out to the health care facility. He is doing well out there, and as a matter of fact, he is helping a nurse’s aid study to get her citizenship.”

“Sam was always very active in the community and served on so many committees I couldn’t even tell you,” said Susan. He worked on the hospital board for 12 to 15 years. He is a devout Catholic and has always attended Mass every week, but about three weeks ago he just got to the point where he couldn’t go anymore, said John. “He has been using a walker for the last two years, but that is not an option anymore. His attitude is still great, though. If you ask him how he is doing, he would say, ‘Fine, thank you.’ Nothing has changed. He is a remarkable person.”

Sam has always been popular wherever he goes. Russ Brown, the current provost of IRSC, had nothing but good to say about Sam. They worked together many times over the years, he said. “Everything Sam has done has been at the highest of levels professionally and personally. He is very positive about life and about people. He always had the words to encourage people to do better for themselves. If he needed to be tough, he would be tough. It made some employees uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, they were better for it. He knew what to say, whether they wanted to hear it or not to get them motivated.”

Janine Merriman, a counselor at IRSC, also worked with Sam for many years. She said he was great to have as a boss. One of the things she remembers most about him was that he remembered everyone’s name, parents, students. She said he was also known for leaving personal messages on your desk after any kind of an event. If you did something, he never failed to thank you for it. No matter how many people worked on it, he would take the time to write each person a personal note to thank them for what they did.

Everyone agreed he was never a morning person, though. He would stay as long as it took to get things done at night, but don’t count on him early in the morning.

Susan and her daughter Cara were talking a few months ago about how people often don’t tell people how they feel about them while they are alive. It’s when people are gone that everyone talks about how much the person meant to them. They did not want that to be the case for Sam, so they decided to put out a call to all of Sam’s friends, colleagues and family and ask them to write emails or letters telling Sam what he means to them. The results were amazing. Emails poured in from all over. Former students like Harold Hilliard, who told Sam he was a major influence on his life, that Sam made him buckle down and stop being the class clown, that Sam’s encouragement gave him the will to do his best at everything he did in life.

Former employees like Julie Reno, who said Sam “made it a point to get to know the employees and chat with them in the hallways or even off campus.”

Susan and Cara printed out all those emails and put them into a book for Sam. He is not able to see well enough to read anymore, so they read the letters to him, and the book is in his room at the health care facility. “It meant the world to him,” said Susan.

Sam still enjoys some of his favorite hobbies, bingo and playing the slot machine out at the casino. He plays bingo at the health care facility and his brother takes him to the casino once a week. Sam said they set a limit on what they will spend before they go, though, so they never lose more than they can afford. Sam has no regrets, he said. His philosophy for life has always been to dress for success, respect others the way you want them to respect you and rules are NOT made to be broken.

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