Gentry O. Smith excelled on a small stage growing up in the little northeastern North Carolina town of Weldon in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Smith played wide receiver and defensive end on the Weldon High School football team, ran the 880-yard dash for the track team, performed the play “Purlie” and another two-person production based on Langston Hughes’ most famous literary character, “Jesse B. Semple.” He also found time to serve as senior class president, National Honor Society president and the lead drummer with the marching band.
Now Smith, 55, is leading a different group.
This month, he was named an ambassador and sworn in as director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Foreign Missions, which oversees foreign embassies and consulates in the United States and makes sure that American diplomats receive fair treatment in other countries. It also ensures that foreign diplomats living in the United States receive reciprocal diplomatic benefits, privileges and immunities provided by federal laws and international agreements.
President Barack Obama nominated Smith to head the Office of Foreign Missions last year, capping a career that began with a bachelor’s degree in political science from N.C. State University and four years as a Raleigh police officer.
Smith left the Raleigh Police Department in 1987 to join the State Department. He served as a regional security officer in U.S. embassies in Tokyo, Rangoon and Cairo and directed the Office of Physical Security Programs before becoming deputy assistant secretary for countermeasures in 2009.
Now Smith will supervise 80 employees and is responsible for ensuring foreign diplomats don’t violate the diplomatic privileges and immunities granted by the U.S. government, while ensuring that people who work in U.S. missions and embassies are treated well abroad. In Smith’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, referred to Smith’s job as the “office for tit for tat.”
A nurturing environment
The road that Smith took from Weldon to the diplomatic corps in the nation’s capital began with encouragement from his parents, Dorothy Virginia Smith and Oliver R. Smith, who were both Halifax County schoolteachers.
“I grew up knowing that the world was big, and there was more out there,” he wrote in an email interview with The News & Observer. “Our parents always encouraged us to think that way.”
He also credited others whom he described as “nurturing” during his coming-of-age years in Weldon.
“I had so many inspiring relatives, friends and teachers positively influencing my life,” he wrote in the email. “They always encouraged me to excel and grow.”
One of those people who inspired Smith was Thomas E. Conway III, now a vice chancellor and chief of staff at Fayetteville State University.
Conway was working at N.C. State University as a counselor when Smith enrolled there in the mid-1970s. He described Smith as the classic story of the small-town boy making good.
“Extremely well-liked, popular; he was like a lot of kids – very bright – one of the best students coming out of the Weldon area to N.C. State, an institution bigger than his whole hometown,” Conway said.
Conway said an incident on campus during Smith’s junior year showed the “strength of character, professionalism and willingness to take calculated risks” that he has displayed throughout the years he has known him.
“He was shot in an incident on campus,” said Conway, who explained that the shooting occurred during a party at a building on campus. Raleigh residents who were not students crashed the party, and an altercation ensued. Smith tried to intervene and was shot in the mouth by one of the non-students.
“The bullet was deflected and lodged near his spine,” Conway said. “He came close to losing his life.”
Conway already knew the young man when the university counseling center asked him to help with his recovery.
“He kept his attitude good,” Conway said. “When I visited him at the hospital, he was in bed busy cheering up his family. He started joking with me as soon as I walked into the room. He had to communicate by writing notes, because the bullet struck him in the mouth.”
Smith recovered and re-enrolled. The shooting, Conway said, brought Smith’s family closer together, “spiritually, as a family.”
Combining two worlds
After his graduation from college, Smith’s family wanted him to have nothing to do with guns, a sentiment at odds with his decision to become a police officer and later a State Department security officer. Smith said he decided to join the Raleigh Police Department during his senior year of college when he was introduced to some of the agency’s officers.
“The work was interesting, and the city was hiring new officers at that time,” he said. “I thought it fit well at the time with my employment aspirations.”
The idea of joining the foreign service took root while Smith was working as a Raleigh cop. Shortly after joining the department, he read an article about the foreign service and realized that the U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security combined elements of both law enforcement and foreign service.
“It was as if diplomatic security was made for me,” he said.
Smith, a married father of four children, has maintained strong ties to his home state, even with a career that dispatches him to posts overseas.
“We have lots of family in North Carolina, so we go to visit as often as we can,” he said. “We have vacationed at Emerald Isle every summer for nearly 25 years. I also try to attend at least one N.C. State University football and basketball game each year. We attended the ACC basketball tournament in Greensboro two years ago. We’re die-hard Wolfpack supporters.”