Hulett C. Smith, the second Beckleyan in West Virginia history to be elected governor, died Sunday in Arizona after years of failing health, nearly half a century after he used the state’s highest office to abolish capital punishment, implement environmental reforms and set the stage to modernize the road system.
Smith’s home on tree-lined Harper Road was a longtime Beckley landmark, and it was there he lived until ill health befell him in recent years, forcing him out of public service.
Last fall, he was transferred to an assisted living home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he died at age 93.
Smith was elected to his only term in 1964, four years after West Virginia voters turned the mansion over to William Wallace “Wally” Barron, whose administration was steeped in corruption. Barron eventually wound up in prison on a jury tampering conviction, drawing a five-year sentence.
“West Virginia is in mourning for one of our native sons, who became a champion for better state government during some of the most turbulent times in America’s history,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Monday in a statement.
“Gov. Smith enabled our state to take monumental steps forward during his time in office. Today, we remember the progress made under his leadership, and the man who led the way. Joanne and I send our heartfelt sympathies to his family.”
As governor, Smith, a Democrat and the son of a longtime congressman, signed a bill that outlawed the death penalty in 1965 and also inaugurated initiatives that imposed regulations on surface mining and air pollution.
On ending capital punishment, he said in a recent interview, “I still think it was the right thing to do.”
Smith defeated Republican foe Cecil H. Underwood, who had been elected West Virginia’s youngest chief executive in 1956, but afterward, the two once-bitter rivals forged a strong friendship that witnessed them working together on a number of education matters.
“When Hulett Smith stepped forward as your neighbor, a businessman, governor or distinguished civic leader, you could count on two things,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
“In one hand, the governor would be carrying the banner of excellence; the other would be outstretched so our kids could grab hold of a brighter future. The only thing this born leader ever followed was the truth as he saw it.”
Rahall, whose family owned a competing radio station, WWNR, said his and Smith’s families “enjoyed a long and treasured friendship.”
“Though we will miss him dearly here in Beckley, our state and nation has lost a champion, a thinker and doer, one who led a life of service to his fellow man,” the 3rd District congressman said.
Smith was the first governor Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remembers seeing, and that occasion came in a visit to Farmington, when he steered West Virginia through one of its more deadly mine disasters, the No. 9 explosion on Nov. 20, 1968, that entombed 78 coal miners.
“He left a powerful legacy of leading our state into the future, whether it was human rights or infrastructure developments,” said Manchin, who twice was elected governor himself.
Besides the Farmington mine tragedy, Manchin noted that Smith also was in office when West Virginia suffered another horrific disaster, the Silver Bridge collapse of Dec. 15, 1967, at Point Pleasant, that left 46 people dead.
“As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can also remember Gov. Smith for moving our state into the civil rights area and creating the foundation for who we are today,” Manchin said.
“Gov. Smith was a uniter and I can only imagine how he would approach our political division today. I hope that his example helps all of us see the good in each other and work better together.”
Sen. Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., called the late governor “a great and trusted friend, and someone I deeply admired.”
“A distinguished World War II veteran, Gov. Smith was a staunch advocate for the less fortunate,” the senator said.
“He worked tirelessly on behalf of all West Virginians and he was very kind and open to me when I first arrived in Emmons in 1964. Sharon and I are keeping his family in our thoughts and prayers today and in the days to come.”
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., whose father, Arch A. Moore Jr., succeeded Smith as governor in 1969, said she and her parents mourned the Beckleyan’s death.
“He was a true leader and a kind gentleman who left a positive mark on our state,” Capito said.
“When my father was elected governor, Hulett and Mary Alice were gracious and helpful during the transition, and they remained lifelong friends. We will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Appointed by Barron, Smith was the state’s first commerce commissioner, and, as governor, the former Navy lieutenant who served in the Bureau of Ordnance in World War II increased pre-school and university-level programs, while launching a number of organizations involving the arts and humanities.
A successful businessman in his hometown, with links to the insurance, health care, banking and broadcast media, Smith was born in 1918, the son of the late Rep. Joe L. Smith (for whom radio station WJLS was named) and Christine Carlson Smith. His father served eight straight terms in Congress.
A graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School and the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, he married Mary Alice Tieche in 1942, who was first lady in his term as governor. She died in 1967. The union produced six children. In 1990, the former governor married Nancy Pat Lewis of Beckley, who died three years ago. Sons Hulett Jr. and Mark preceded him in death.
While he never again sought public office, Smith remained in the public eye, serving on a number of public boards and agencies, including the West Virginia Parkways Authority, which governs the West Virginia Turnpike.
Manager Greg Barr, who was financial officer for the parkways when Smith served, remembered him as “a very professional, polite, kind man.”
“I guess, with his career in politics and being governor, he had learned how to work through issues and compromises as needed to get things done,” Barr said.
“Obviously, he was there during the creation of Tamarack. He was highly involved with Tamarack. He was a big supporter of that.”
Smith often regaled parkways officials with recollections of his days as governor, recalling his efforts on behalf of education, and how he wanted to assure West Virginia taxpayers got the most mileage as possible for money spent in that arena, Barr said.
“He always dressed nice, kind of flamboyantly sometimes, I thought,” Barr said.
“He was a unique fellow. I really enjoyed him.”
A former board member, Tom Winner of Oak Hill, remembered Smith as “attentive and very forward-thinking” while helping to direct Turnpike business.
In deference to his parkways service, a theater at the artisans mecca near the Beckley exit, Tamarack, is named after him.
Smith became the second Beckley native to win the governorship, joining Clarence Meadows, who served from 1945 to 1949.
His initial test of the gubernatorial waters proved futile, in 1960, when Barron won out, but four years later, he swept all but two of the state’s 55 counties in the Democratic primary and, a few months later, captured the post in what then was the largest majority in 16 years.
His stand against capital punishment, based on “mature belief and faith,” was part of his successful campaign against Underwood.
Smith led voters into approving the “Modern Budget Amendment,” which extended powers to the governor in proposing the annual spending document, in lieu of letting the Board of Public Works draw it up.
During his term, the Vietnam war escalated, causing a great deal of angst for the governor. Smith ultimately aligned himself with Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s position that America should quit bombing the Asian country in an effort to coax both sides to the negotiating table.
National turbulence was dramatized by more than just the war, however, with two public figures — New York Sen. Robert Kennedy and civil rights figure Martin Luther King Jr. — gunned down by assassins. That led Smith to urge stronger gun control laws, saying at the time, “We have to take steps to become a civilized nation.”
When his term ended, Charleston Daily Mail political columnist Bob Mellace opined that Smith’s lone term produced a record “that is remarkable and will stand for a long time, much longer than the words of his critics ... The record will show no man ever tried harder to do good and few accomplished more in the time allotted him in the governor’s office.”
Smith was the last governor barred from seeking a second term.
In his four-year stint, state aid to public education almost doubled, both the welfare caseload and jobless rate were cut, and five new airports were built. The Interstate highway system was brought up to schedule and voters approved a $350 million road bond amendment. In 2006, Interstate 64 from Beckley to the Virginia border was named in his honor.
“I was proud of my administration,” Smith said in a 2006 interview with The Register-Herald, emphasizing his efforts to expand civil service coverage and remove the taint of political corruption that characterized the Barron years.
Among Smith’s survivors are his children, Carolyn H. Sheets and husband, George, of Columbus, Ohio; Alice Christine Merritt of Atlanta, Ga.; Suzaine Smith of Boulder, Colo., and Paul Smith and wife Patti of Beckley; and 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Melton Mortuary in Beckley.
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