Longtime local educator, town leader and master craftsman Reginald D. “R.D.” Smith died early Tuesday morning.
A funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 9, at First Baptist Church, 106 N. Roberson St. in Chapel Hill. The family will visit with friends at 1 p.m.
Smith, 98, was a native of Goldsboro who spent his early years working in the tobacco and cotton fields on his grandparents’ farm.
He met his wife Euzelle P. Smith at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and they moved to Caldwell Street in Chapel Hill in the early 1940s, becoming educators for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. They were longtime residents of the Northside neighborhood.
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The school district named R.D. and Euzelle P. Smith Middle School for them in 1999.
Smith also was a World War II veteran, serving in the South Pacific with the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. In 1966, he joined the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen (later the Town Council), serving until 1987.
“He was certainly the conscience of the council for a long time,” former Chapel Hill mayor Jonathan Howes said in 1997. “He paved the way for other African-Americans to take leadership positions.”
But students were nearest to his heart, friends said. Smith taught agriculture, industrial arts and automotive repair at the all-black Orange County Training School and then Lincoln High School. Students nicknamed him “The Master” because of his talents as a craftsman.
Smith became an industrial arts and driver’s ed teacher at Chapel Hill High School after the schools were desegregated, and was promoted to assistant principal in 1970. He retired in 1980, spending some of his later years tinkering on a 1963 Chevy II in his back yard.
Former assistant superintendent Steve Scroggs said Smith was instrumental in integrating the school at a time of sit-ins and demonstrations. He also helped to improve the transportation system, Scroggs said, and had a knack for inspiring students to succeed.
Scroggs was a Chapel Hill High student when he met Smith; they later became colleagues. His father Ross Scroggs served alongside Smith as an alderman, Scroggs said, and his brother Max, who owns A Better Wrench, grew his skills under Smith’s tutelage.
Scroggs said he adopted many of Smith’s rules when he opened McDougle Elementary School in the 1990s.
“One of them is take your hat off when you come in the house,” he said. “And his firm, firm belief that to be successful you had to be able to motivate. That was a cornerstone of R.D.’s entire career was you’ve got to motivate people.”
Smith was a legend in his eyes, Scroggs said.
“R.D. was an amazing human being,” he said. “He was great with kids, great with students. You knew where you stood with R.D.”
Smith Middle students and staff wore school colors Wednesday in Smith’s honor.
The couple remained active in the school until about a year ago, Principal Phil Holmes said, sitting in reserved floor seats to watch their granddaughter play basketball and attending the Global Connections diversity event in the fall. They asked for a copy of every yearbook, he said
Civil rights and black history also held special meaning for Smith, who gave an extensive collection of memorabilia to the school, Holmes said.
“It was quite a treasure trove,” he said. “Some of it, I think, was clearly meaningful for him, and some of it in retrospect you don’t quite know why he saved it, but other things were really powerful, really important times in the history of Chapel Hill and in the country.”
They used that history to teach about civil rights and made the couple’s Caldwell Street home a stop in the annual Northside walking tour, he said.
“Every year, when our kids go and do the walking tour of the near North, Mr. and Mrs. Smith somehow get the word of when the day is,” he said, “and up until this year, they were always out on their front porch when the kids walked by, and they always held court a little bit.”
Smith and his wife were honored in 1997 by the Public School Foundation and named Town Treasures in 2008 by the Chapel Hill Historical Society. Both also are longtime members of First Baptist Church.
Smith is survived by his wife; a son, Reginald Smith II; daughters Pamela Edwards and Patrice Wall, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A daughter Andrea Bunn preceded him in death.
The family is asking that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the R.D. Smith Fund c/o the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation, P.O. Box 877, Carrboro, NC 27510.