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CHCCS Says Goodbye to Legendary Leader and Beacon

When the history and legends of public education in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are shared, R.D. and Euzelle Smith rise foremost in many remembrances. Together and individually, they were giants in the community, as public servants, role models and truth-tellers.

Euzelle Patterson Smith passed away on September 19 at the age of 101, preceded in death by her husband, Reginald, in 2016. They were married for 72 years, and one memorial to their numerous civic contributions is Smith Middle School (SMS), a testament to their impact on public education and community service.

Nine of the 20 schools in CHCCS  were named for educators. Some of those educators taught as recently as Zora Rashkis, who retired in 1979; Guy B. Phillips was a longtime professor and dean of education at UNC in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. None of the other schools among the eight had deep and enduring relationships with their namesakes like SMS. Until recently Mrs. Smith still attended special events at the school, and in 2017, the entire student body and staff lined the hallways to honor her as she and family members slowly made their way through the school. She and her husband were loved, respected and celebrated in many ways, each and every year since the school opened in August 2001.

SMS Principal, Dr. Robin Buckrham, said, “Mrs. Smith was a pioneer educator who believed in education for all. I see and feel the legacy she has left in our building and I am proud and humbled at the same time. I thank her for paving the way for me, and so many others. Thank you to the Smith family for sharing her with us.”

N.C. Senator Valerie Foushee attended Frank Porter Graham Elementary School when Euzelle Smith was a teacher, and she was a student at Culbreth Middle School when Smith was a counselor. But she also knew the Smiths from childhood and counted them as friends. She said, “It makes me smile to remember sage advice she gave me as an adult, standing in the vestibule at First Baptist Church, just before I noticed I was on a program without prior notice; She said to me, be ye also ready!”

Foushee was a member of the CHCCS School Board that voted to name a school in honor of the Smiths -- “A monument to remind everyone,” she said, “for generations to come, who enters or even rides by the legacy of the Smith Family and their hard work to ensure the success and wellbeing of every child entrusted to their care.”

Current and former SMS staff and administrators created a video to share with the Smiths’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and its many messages and photographs capture the level of attachment and pride they have felt in their association with the Smiths.

Valerie Reinhardt served as the first principal of SMS. In her message she said, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are the soul of Smith Middle School. Their commitment to children and education set the tone for the foundation and standards of our school from its inception. Their kindness and empathy inspired us to be like them.”

Paulette Scott taught social studies at Culbreth Middle School before she moved to SMS to teach eighth grade students there from 2001 until 2010. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith were a class act. I always had a sense of pride as they walked through the building. They truly cared about SMS. Because of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I continue to serve.”

Eight original staff members still teach at SMS, nearly 20 years on. Health and Physical Education Teacher, Mackenzie Casey said, “I will always remember taking our walking tours of Northside and seeing the Smiths outside on their lawns, waving to us.”

SMS School Social Worker, Tina Moore, said “Working at the school named for Euzelle & RD Smith and having been able to meet and talk with both the Smiths many times throughout the past 20 years has been a tremendous honor. The legacy and depth of the connections made by the Smiths is such an inspiration. The school reflects the spirit of the Smiths to me. It has always felt like home, and the Smith Middle community has always felt like family.”

Gabriel Grana has served as the SMS librarian for seven years, and he has devoted great care and time to overseeing the permanent collection of artifacts that record the history of the school and the Smiths’ lives. He said, “I will continue to curate the archives dedicated to the Smiths, which serves as a testament to the idea that what we leave behind is more than just a collection of things, but an insight into who we were and what we valued.”

The Smiths met at Hampton Institute (now University) in Newport News, Virginia, where she earned a degree in Elementary Education. Later she went on to earn an M.A. in Education, and then a N.C. Certification in Guidance and Counseling. They moved to Chapel Hill in 1943 and settled in the Northside community, eventually building a house on Caldwell Street, near the current Northside Elementary School. 

Between the two of them, they taught in elementary, middle and high schools, before and after desegregation of the school district. Her final position with CHCCS was as a counselor at Culbreth Middle School from 1968-1981. Her husband served as a teacher and principal, as well as holding a position on the Chapel Hill Town Council for 20 years. For decades, their voices were among the most respected in the community, characterized by their activist spirit, their broad network of friends and colleagues and their shared ability to find humor and unique insights into much of what they observed and experienced.

As part of an ongoing Northside Community oral history project by the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, interviews with the Smiths conducted in 2011 have been preserved in archives. They were 91 and 92 years old at the time, yet Mrs. Smith, in particular, sounds as clear-minded and vibrant as a person half her age. They described the rural nature of Northside in the 1940’s, and they shared stories about their roles at the African-American schools in town, the Orange County Training School and Lincoln High School. They discussed, at times with dismay, the accelerated changes in the school system as well as their Northside neighborhood as it gentrified and sometimes pushed out families who had lived on the streets off Rosemary for generations.

In one segment, Mrs. Smith talked about their collection of SMS photos and blueprints, including images from the groundbreaking ceremony and an aerial view before the school was finished. She seemed especially pleased that the middle school bearing their name was part of a trio of schools, with Seawell Elementary and Chapel Hill High School, that allowed students to attend grades K-12 on the same parcel of land. 

The tribute video contains many photographs of the Smiths at SMS, both in their capacity as community dignitaries and as grandparents to several SMS students. Mrs. Smith’s face is always brightened by a smile, and it’s not hard to imagine the pleasure she and her husband gained from visiting their namesake school over the years.

Foushee read these words at Mrs. Smith’s funeral service in September.

“She was diminutive in stature but stood tall with dignity and grace;

Never seeking the spotlight but impossible to go unnoticed.

A strong woman who was both soft and powerful,

Both practical and spiritual.

Her essence was a gift to the world.”

The family requests that memorial donations be made to Smith Middle School to support families in need. “We are asking for grocery gift cards or check donations to be mailed to Smith Middle School (9201 Seawell School Rd, Chapel Hill, NC 27516). If the donation is by check, please write ‘In memory of Euzelle Smith’ on the memo line,” said Tina Moore.