Former alderman, principal Henry Lee Smith leaves legacy
NATCHEZ — Encouraging educator, concerned alderman, inspiring Christian, community leader and even sharp dresser — any one of those titles fit Henry Lee Smith, family and friends say.
The former Natchez-Adams County School District principal and Ward 4 alderman died Wednesday, April 3, at the age of 79.
Smith’s granddaughter La’Toya Scott-Hammett of Memphis, Tenn., said her grandfather put his family, Christian values and education at the top of his priorities.
“His attitude was most definitely optimistic, and he upheld his values of family and Christian faith during his lifetime,” she said. “Education was essential in his life, and he preached that to each and every one of us and to children in the community.”
Smith married his wife, the late Thelma Golden Williams, at age 17, and the couple had five children.
Smith went on to graduate first from Natchez College with his associate’s degree, then from Alcorn State University with a bachelor’s degree and finally from Southern University with a master’s degree.
Smith also completed further studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Valley State University and Tennessee State University, where he had completed all but the dissertation toward a doctoral degree in educational administration.
Scott-Hammett said her grandfather’s deep commitment to education and service inspired her to eventually get her doctorate in educational administration. She is an educator at Chickasaw Middle School in Memphis.
“I aspired to be like him,” she said.
As did other several other of Smith’s children and grandchildren who work in education, Scott-Hammett said.
Outside the classroom, Scott-Hammett said, her grandfather was the life of the party.
“He was always humorous and a very social person, and he really took care of all of us and welcomed everyone into his house,” she said.
Smith represented Ward 4 on the Natchez Board of Aldermen in the late 1980s, and current Ward 4 Alderman and Morgantown Middle School Assistant Principal Tony Fields said Smith set the bar high for the dual role of alderman and educator.
“He really laid the blueprint of being a principal and an alderman,” Fields said. “The way you deal with people, that’s the biggest thing I got from him. Doing both of those professions at the same time, you have to be two people essentially to do that.”
Fields grew up near Smith and said he remembers looking up to Smith when he was younger.
“I remember him being this tall, well-dressed, well-spoken man in the neighborhood,” Fields said. “I remember him having the nicest house on the street, and he was always out encouraging the kids.”
Smith certainly encouraged retired educator Willie Woods, who was new to Natchez when he met Smith. Woods’ first job was at Central School in Washington where Smith was principal.
Woods said he had not had time to find a place to live, and Smith offered to let Woods stay with Smith’s mother-in-law, who lived by herself at the time.
“I ended up staying with her for more than two years,” Woods said. “I bonded with the whole family.”
Smith also gave Woods a ride to work every day until Woods was able to make a down payment on a car with his first check.
“Our relationship was very close,” Woods said. “Even after I was transferred into another building, we remained close.”
Woods was an educator for 35 years, and he said he learned from the best.
“Henry went the extra mile to make sure the students could learn and got an education,” Woods said. “He was very patient and spent extra time with students, making sure they had all the things they needed, whether it was pencils or materials or extra help.”
Smith also spent a great deal of time making sure his teachers were taken care of too, Woods said.
Smith’s personality, Woods said, made him good, personable communicator.
“He was very versatile,” Woods said. “He could work with everyone.”
Smith also taught Woods that versatility and flexibility, not just what he learned in college, would make him a good educator.
“He always said, ‘Not everything you learned in college is going to work in every classroom you’re in. You have to learn your students; you have to be flexible and make adjustments as you go.’”
Funeral services for Smith will be at 1 p.m. today at Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church with the Rev. Kenneth Stanton officiating.
Burial will follow in Sunset View Memorial Park.
Smith will be greatly missed in the community, Fields said.
“He was a joy to be around always. He was just a happy person every time you saw him. The best thing about him was that he encouraged everybody that crossed his path.”