James “Smitty” Smith is the man who taught many Lexingtonians what it is to be a kind and gracious person.
For generations of people who came through the Columbia Steak House on North Limestone during the 34 years that Smitty worked there on and off, he was the man with the ready smile, an encouraging word and, sometimes, an on-the-house cheeseburger that helped starving students keep body and soul together when funds were fragile.
Some of those students, many from nearby Transylvania University, would go on to become lawyers, doctors and business executives. They never forgot Smitty’s generosity.
When students came in and ordered one of Columbia’s plate-size cheeseburgers to split, Smitty would spring into action: “I’d say, ‘Look, you guys, I know you’re freshmen. But I said to the waitress, ‘Bring each of them one,’ and to them I said, ‘You don’t owe me anything.”
Lexington attorney Fred Peters remembered Smitty’s generosity by bringing him back to Columbia in December for a party. Smitty said he hadn’t been inside the restaurant for 13 years.
As Smitty moved down the row of diners, Peters said, “It was like a rock star.”
“Everybody over 40 to 45 years old in Lexington, if they remember Columbia, they associate Smitty with it,” he said.
Smitty was best known for his stint at Columbia and then at at the eponymous Smitty’s restaurant in Chevy Chase. Smitty’s closed in 1990; in 1992, Smitty began a second stint at Columbia that ended in 1993.
But he has always worked two or three jobs: with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office for the past 25 years, at a photo lab, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, freelance at parties.
Smitty grew up in the small community of Indian Fields in Clark County when the schools were segregated. He remembers seeing the buses with white students go by as he walked miles to his school.
Later, at Columbia, he encountered name-calling and racism. Smitty would simply turn around and smile.
“When you get angry, you just feel worse,” he said.
He also had a drink thrown in his face after he cut off an intoxicated customer.
Smitty is 87, and despite some arthritis, he hasn’t slowed down much. He has been married twice, has had three children (one of whom died in a car accident) and three grandchildren, in whom he delights.
His philosophy: “God will take care of you. Do your best, treat people the way you wish to be treated, and the master will take care of you.”
Although he describes himself in his youth as a party-going person, Smitty believes in prayer in school and in giving to panhandlers despite local controversy on that subject: “Whatever you give from your heart, what that person does with it, it’s between him and God.”
But he knows, having lost all of his seven siblings, that he has a legacy. Smitty wants it to be this: ‘I hope they say, ‘That’s the guy who tried to please everybody.’ I’m happy just about every day. Life is so beautiful.”
Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt said Smitty “is what every employer would want an employee to be.”
“He’s honest, has tremendous character and integrity, treats everyone with respect,” Witt said. “He’s an exceptional person.”
Smitty was interviewed May 2, on his 87th birthday, and he said his girlfriend had called and asked him what present to buy.
Smitty has a girlfriend?
“Well, of course!” he said. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”