Sen. Verne Smith remembered for helping land BMW, dedication to education

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Former state Sen. Jefferson Verne Smith, who spanned two eras in South Carolina politics and was one of the Upstate's last bastions of political power, died Dec. 17, 2006.

The Greer Republican was 81.

In a political career encompassing four decades, the tall, courtly Smith helped reshape the Upstate. His outwardly easy-going manner belied a fiery intensity that made him a respected leader, even as he became a Republican after years of serving as a Democrat.

Smith resigned from the Senate in July, citing health problems from a blood disorder. He had missed the year's entire session in Columbia.

His daughter, Carole Olmert, said Smith died at home at 9:25 a.m., leaving behind two children, five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

"We're very grateful that he's not suffering anymore," Olmert said.

His wife of 59 years, Jean Myers Smith, died Nov. 18.

Smith left a legacy that forever changed the face of the Upstate. Among the projects he had a hand in: helping lure BMW to Greer; building Lake Robinson; funding the Peace Center for the Performing Arts; and siting the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in downtown Greenville.

"He was one of the greatest leaders I've ever known," said the school's former president, Virginia Uldrick.

Funeral services will be Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Greer. Burial will be in Mountain View Cemetery.

A tire salesman

"Ol' Verne" to some, "Uncle Verne" to others, the self-deprecating Smith often referred to himself as "a used-tire salesman." He was president of the Tire Exchange of Greer, Mauldin and Simpsonville.

When Smith passed the 30-year mark in the Senate to become the longest-serving Greenville senator, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, described his close friend as "very straightforward, one of the deepest-thinking people I've been around. He listens to all sides and then says what he thinks."

Former Gov. Dick Riley remembered Smith as a well-respected, sensitive and caring man. Children and the disadvantaged could always depend on him, Riley said.

"He shifted parties," Riley said. "But he never shifted his principles."

Smith, fresh from a stint as Greenville County's Democratic Party chairman, arrived in the Senate in 1972 when a handful of rural barons, far from the industrialized Upstate, dominated South Carolina politics and the Democratic Party was king.

In 1980, while running for a third term, he saw signs of change, but lamented that "for too long, state government has been controlled by a few men from small, Lowstate counties."

A shift in power

His political career covered a period in which the Upstate, with its rising population and economic power, went from political obscurity to unprecedented power, with 16 consecutive years of governors from Greenville followed by 11 years with David Wilkins as House speaker.

During Smith's tenure, two ongoing circumstances reshaped the state politically.

The old Senate warhorses, all Democrats, died, and South Carolina remade itself into one of the South's most reliably Republican states, bottom to top.

Smith would play a crucial role in cementing that transition.

Republicans achieved control of the state House of Representatives with the 1994 elections and came out of 2000 with a 23-23 tie in the Senate.

Just days before the 2001 session was to convene, the conservative Smith changed to the GOP, saying he could better represent his strongly Republican district within that party. For the first time in 124 years, Republicans held both legislative bodies.

Don Fowler, former co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he was shocked when Smith switched parties, but Greenville's political realities dictated the move.

After the switch, Smith remained concerned about the same issues -- particularly education and children, Fowler said.

"His party allegiance didn't affect his disposition on issues," he said.

Some Democrats called him "dishonorable," but Smith said at the time, "I've always done what I think is right, and that's put me at odds at times with the leadership of the Democratic Party."

Smith predicted his constituents will "be patting me on the back and shaking my hand." They did. Protests were mostly limited to state-level party leaders, and Smith's District 5 constituents gave him 90 percent of their votes in 2004.

Working with the GOP

Working with Republicans was nothing new for Smith, particularly as Democrats drifted to the left.

In 1996, then-Gov. David Beasley, a Republican, went to Greenville to endorse Smith, ensuring he'd have no GOP opposition. Smith in turn endorsed Beasley in 1998.

Smith opposed Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges' lottery bill in 1999. He broke ranks with the Democratic majority in 1995. It had stripped newly elected Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler of some of the powers of his office as president of the Senate.

But, just as when he was as a Democrat, Smith never became a down-the-line Republican.

"I'm just pretty independent," he said years after the switch.

This year, he broke with his new party to endorse state Sen. Tommy Moore of Clearwater, a Democrat, over Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, whose policies and management style he had often challenged.

Sanford said through a spokesman that few people in public life will ever compile the long record of service that Smith did.

"I ask everyone to join me, Jenny and the boys in keeping the Smith family in their thoughts and prayers in the weeks ahead," he said.

A combination of seniority, affability, networking and sincerely fighting tooth and nail for those things he believed in helped Smith quietly amass power and influence among his colleagues.

"I believe the harder I worked, the luckier I got," he said.

Leadership could be difficult, Smith said.

"You've got to be motivated to want to accomplish something. If you want to be respected, you have to be respectable," he said. "Those who lead have got to feel willing to devote themselves to it."

Determined politician

Laid-back? Yes, but he was a fiercely determined egalitarian when fighting for issues close to his heart, particularly education and those affecting society's less fortunate.

Then-Gov. Carroll Campbell appointed Smith to be chairman of a committee that determined the location of the governor's school and who would have access to it.

"He wanted all children who had talent, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to have an opportunity to develop that talent to the highest level," Uldrick said. "He was a very deep and highly visionary person."

Over his more than 30 years in the Senate, Smith's hand was almost always in legislation dealing with health care, the aging, and alcohol and drug abuse.

He helped Campbell, also from Greenville, revamp the state's economic development laws in 1987 and when those changes helped draw BMW's interest to Greer, Smith was among those helping to seal the deal.

Later, he would be a leader in pushing Campbell's ultimately successful effort to centralize under the Governor's Office a major part of South Carolina's independent boards and departments.

Confederate history

As the fight over the presence of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse dome intensified in 2000, Smith was among the key players who developed the compromise that moved the banner to the Statehouse grounds.

The grandson and great-grandson of Confederate veterans, Smith had been among those who fought to keep alive the memory of their service.

But he was one of those who voted to move the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome, a location opponents, many of them black, said honored the banner of slavery.

Smith's acceptance of the compromise shifting the flag to the Confederate Soldiers' Monument on the Statehouse grounds and removing others from the House and Senate chambers was seen as critical to the successful effort that brought black and white legislators together.

"I never fought to protect the flag because I thought slavery was right," he said as debate began in 2000. "It was a reminder of the tragedy and my respect for those who lived though it, held families together and did the best they could with what they had, which was very little."

Smith's grandfather, John P. Smith, and great-grandfather, Samuel Smith, served in the Confederate army and lived into the 20th century. His great-great-grandfather, John Thomas Smith, had 34 sons, grandsons and great-grandsons who served the Confederacy. Eleven of them died during the war.

"I believe in remembering who we are and where we came from," Smith said.

Making his name

Over the years, Smith carved out his own political power base in Columbia and, for many, was the go-to guy when Greenville or his beloved Greer was in need.

With Govs. Dick Riley and Campbell long out of office and Wilkins gone in June 2005 to be U.S. ambassador to Canada, dependence on Smith mounted. Campbell's departure marked the beginning of a still evolving political power shift from the Upstate to the Lowcountry.

Smith's death marks another downturn in the region's power.

When Smith looked around the Upstate, he could point to the highways, schools and human resource facilities he was instrumental in bringing to fruition.

In a 2001 interview, Smith said he considered "bringing state money to Greenville County to provide human services, education and the arts" to be his primary impact on the region.

"Being able to help other people brings inner peace," he added.

There's a joke among some legislators and lobbyists in Columbia that a meeting isn't over until Verne Smith says it is. The thought of that made him laugh. "I've built up influence, but I couldn't say that," he joked -- sort of -- in 2001.

Among his prizes are funding for the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, Greenville Technical College, the Human Resources centers in Greenville and Marietta and various facilities for the disabled and those with special needs.

"Historically, a strong share of our funds have gone toward Charleston" rather than the Upstate, he said.

Ironically, Smith once sought unsuccessfully to ban the practice of naming highways, bridges and public building for living people.

In his lifetime, Smith would see a parkway in Greer and an auditorium at Greenville Technical College bear his name.

Smith was serving on the Greer Commission of Public Works -- he helped get Lake Robinson built as a water supply source -- when his friends convinced him to run for state Senate.

Despite growing health problems beginning well into his 70s, Smith's work ethic remained, even in a less willing body.

Smith attributed much of his success to the examples set by his father, who died when the future senator was 8, and his mother, who raised her young family alone, running her husband's businesses.

"We had to start work early," he said, recalling toiling at the family's peach orchard as a teenager. "When I was 16, I was running the operation in Georgia, with over 100 hands," he said. "You do what you have to do."

After having a job selling crackers, he began working for the owner of The Tire Exchange for $45 a week. Three years later, he bought 25 percent of the business and had his pay raised to $60 a week. In four more years, he bought the rest of the business on credit.

Daughter Olmert, who worked with her father for 20 years, said people would line up in a waiting room at The Tire Exchange to ask for Smith's help. But he also had time for his family and would drop a phone call with the governor if one of his grandchildren entered the room, she said.

He had time for all

"I'd like him to be remembered for his big heart," Olmert said. "He loved people so much."

Greer and Smith were closely intertwined, sort of growing up together.

Aside from family, his prosperous, rapidly growing hometown would be the topic of choice in any conversation.

The roots were deep.

His grandchildren are the seventh generation to attend Greer's First Presbyterian Church. He would praise all things Greer at the drop of a hat. Greer, Smith would say, has everything anyone could ever want.

He was of the generation that could remember hitching posts and blacksmiths on Main Street and when cotton was still the cash crop -- a far cry from the town that's home to BMW and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

"Farming is just about over in Greer," he said recently, with some remorse. "But those BMW jobs are a whole lot better than farming."

State Rep. Lewis Vaughn, who won a November election to finish out Smith's term, said he counted the late senator as one of the best friends.

"I'm really going to miss Sen. Smith," Vaughn said. "He's one of those unique individuals you just don't get over in a hurry."

Sen. Verne Smith Factsheet

  • Born: Jan. 15, 1925, in Greer
  • Education: Greer High, attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, 1942-43; honorary doctor of public service degree, Presbyterian, 2001.
  • Military: U.S. Army 25th Division, Pacific Theater, World War II
  • Married: Jean Myers Smith, Nov. 27, 1947
  • Church: First Presbyterian of Greer
  • Business: President, The Tire Exchange
  • Political career: Member, Greer Commission on Public Works, 1969-72; chairman, Greenville County Democratic Party, 1970-72; state Senate, 1973-2006
  • Residence: Greer
  • Children: Jeff, attorney in Greer and Greenville; Carole S. Olmert, homemaker

Dan Hoover and Paul Alongi