Kentucky Voices

Ky. Voices: Tribute to a Ky. pioneer, great teacher

His caring changed students' lives

March 3, 2013 

John T. Smith of Lexington, the first black to get a doctorate at the University of Kentucky, also served as an administrator there and at Jefferson Community College. A UK dorm is named in his honor.

I read the Feb. 23 Herald-Leader article about the black photographers with Kentucky ties who experienced firsthand the discrimination and racism that existed 50 or so years ago in Lexington and throughout the South.

This article reinforced the goodness of John T. Smith, the first African-American to receive a doctorate from his beloved University of Kentucky and a teacher who helped instill in me the desire to learn and the confidence to be successful.

In the fall of 1966, the war in Vietnam was raging. It was a place most young men wanted to avoid. I was 19, carrying a full load of classes at Ashland Community College while working nearly full time at Ashland Oil. I was also in a play at the college, and my dad, who had been forced to retire at the age of 44, was very ill with a severe heart condition that kept getting worse.

Times were kind of hectic, and I was struggling to keep up with everything.

Smith was my psychology professor. His reputation for being really good preceded him; everyone wanted to be in his classes. He made attending class and learning a rewarding experience. Our classroom for Psychology 104 probably had nearly 90 students.

A day that I will always remember was the day Smith was returning our mid-term exams to us. Mine was marked "78 - C+". Not bad, I thought. I wish it had been better, but hey, it was better than a D-plus.

After Smith handed out our exams, he went over the questions individually. If there was an error in his grading he wanted to take care of it immediately. Just as he finished reviewing the last question, the bell rang signaling the end of class.

As we were leaving, he said, "Frank, may I see you for a moment please?" My first thought was, "Uh-oh, what have I done?"

When the last student left, he said with his calm, reassuring voice, "Frank, I noticed you only got a C-plus on your midterm and I know you are a better student than that and can do much better. Where have I failed you?"

I said to myself: "He failed me? How good does he think I am?"

I told him he had not failed me, that he was an excellent teacher. Then I explained what was going on in my life.

He didn't say much. He didn't have to. He listened and looked at me as he had total understanding of where I was and what I was facing. He told me he would be glad to help or find someone who could. I knew he meant what he said. I also knew he believed in me. He took the time to let me know that he cared and that I mattered. And, I think he thought more of me than I did of myself. He made me feel special.

You see, Smith loved to teach, he loved to learn and most of all he loved for his students to learn and succeed.

He, himself, faced a lot of rejection, difficulties and hurts that I can only imagine, but he never lost his goodness and his desire to make things better. I think it was tough at times for him and his family. But his students didn't know it. He was super. He cared. He taught. He inspired. I believe he always had faith in the goodness of his fellow man.

It has been well over 45 years since he asked me, "Where have I failed you?" I remember it like it was yesterday.

After his teaching assignment in Ashland, Smith went on to Louisville and Lexington to teach hundreds and thousands of students and to inspire countless others to believe in themselves, to believe in other people and to do their best to help themselves and others. My lifelong friend, Patrick R. Lake, retired in 2010 as president of Henderson Community College. He credits Smith as the mentor who instilled in him the love of teaching and of community colleges.

Smith died in 1994. In his memory, a scholarship fund was established by some of his many supporters to assist in funding for minority students to attend community colleges.

I bet he's teaching a class in heaven today. It's probably about how good angels can make a difference in someone's life on Earth. He did.

Frank E. Salisbury is director of advancement at Ashland Community & Technical College.

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