Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dr. Vasco Smith: The Quiet Warrior...R.I.P.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht
Former county commissioner Vasco Smith and his wife Maxine in 1994.

Former Shelby County Commissioner Vasco Smith Dies

By Jody Callahan
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vasco Smith could have been described any number of ways: dentist, Air Force veteran, jazz lover, politician.

Those who knew him best kept coming back to the same words: freedom fighter.

"Vasco was a great soldier in the fight for freedom," said former NAACP leader Dr. Benjamin Hooks of Memphis.

"He was a tremendous warrior, even up unto his last days."

Dr. Smith, a longtime civil rights advocate and former Shelby County commissioner, died Monday. He was 89.

Dr. Smith and his wife, Maxine, executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary 10 days ago.

Their partnership had a lasting effect on the march toward civil rights in Memphis. "She and Vasco should have been called the freedom fighters," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who served with Dr. Smith on the commission. "They would stand up for principle and stand up on issues. They were strong moral voices in the community."

Dr. Smith graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1937, then from LeMoyne College in 1941. He received his dental degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1945.

He began his public life in 1973 when he won a special election for an at-large seat on the Shelby County Quorum Court, forerunner of the commission. He served on that body until retiring from politics in 1994.

During his time there, Dr. Smith and others were instrumental in founding the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. Dr. Smith remembered his mother, who worked at the old John Gaston Hospital, telling him stories about that facility's inadequacies.

"I always said if I could at some time do something about it, I would. On the County Commission, I saw an opportunity," he told The Commercial Appeal in 1994.

But it was also his efforts at promoting civil rights and rooting out racism that left a lasting mark on the city.

Teaming with the likes of Jesse Turner, A. W. Willis, H. T. Lockard, Russell Sugarmon, Hooks and others, the Smiths pushed for voter registration, filed lawsuits, raised money and helped elect African-Americans to office. They also took part in demonstrations and were each arrested more than once.

"I know that I would not be where I am today as a lawyer or in political circles had it not been for Vasco Smith," said Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, a neighbor of the Smiths, who announced Dr. Smith's death at Monday's commission meeting.

"I could best describe him as a valiant soldier in the army for justice (and) equality who suffered many combat injuries and never received a Purple Heart for it," he said.

Dr. Smith was also a legendary music aficionado with a particular love for jazz. At the Smith home, a large portion of one wall is devoted to his expansive collection, dominated by jazz but including music that covered most of the nearly nine decades of his life. The albums were catalogued in the kind of minute detail characteristic of someone passionate about music.

Wharton would often pass along obituaries from The New York Times when an influential musician would pass away, but Dr. Smith's knowledge of the musician would run deeper than the newspaper's account.

"You name it, he would give you a dissertation on it," Wharton said.

In an interview with The Commercial Appeal in January, Maxine Smith talked about how she and Dr. Smith's efforts built on even greater sacrifices made by those who came before.

"We hit the ground running after Vasco got out of the service," she said. "I never had the good sense to get away and I don't have a single regret.

"We all got here on somebody's shoulders and we can go as far back in history as we want and far enough we don't even remember some of those days. One good thing stacks on top of another. I sometimes wonder why God is so good to Vasco and I."

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials be sent to LeMoyne-Owen, the Memphis Branch NAACP or Freedom's Chapel Christian Church.

Jody Callahan: 901-529-6531

Reporters Daniel Connolly and Zack McMillin contributed.


Wendi C. Thomas: Difficult to think of 1 Smith at a time

By Wendi C. Thomas
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New York had Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

Jackson, Miss., had Medgar and Myrlie Evers.

And Memphis, we had Vasco and Maxine Smith.

Dr. Vasco Smith, 89, a dentist, a former Shelby County Commissioner and a civil rights warrior, died Monday, leaving his wife, Maxine, the other half of the legendary civil rights fighting couple, to fight on.

The Smiths were one of Memphis' premier power couples. And to spend any time around them was to be in the presence of strong, enduring love, love that lasted the 56 years of their marriage.

The last time I saw Dr. Vasco Smith -- who insisted I call him simply Vasco -- I was interviewing his wife for a piece about the 40th anniversary of Black Mondays, the school boycotts designed to get black representation on the city school board.

Before the interview even began, Vasco was showing his gentlemanly side, offering to run out and get me some barbecue for lunch.

In the den of their South Memphis house, the walls were full of bookcases that contained his vast music collection (albums, not CDs), and the walls in the hallway were heavy with plaques honoring one or the other for their tireless work.

Maxine held court on the couch, but again and again as we talked, she turned to her life's partner.

He sat in a nearby chair as she plumbed his memory for the nugget she'd forgotten. What was the name of so-and-so? What year was it when we did that?

His mind was quick with the details she didn't remember -- they were an amazing tag team.

When I remember Vasco, I can't think of him alone. I think of him as half of a duo, a part of a beautiful, healthy relationship. He was not threatened by her activism, she was not diminished by his success and status.

In a world with too few models of successful marriages, theirs stood out. Spend any time with them and the love and respect they had for each other was clear. Palpable, almost.

And now that I think of Vasco, gone to be with his maker, my heart goes out to Maxine. The grief she must feel, losing her husband, her ally, her partner, her friend -- the prayers of thousands across the city who were blessed enough to know them will hopefully be of some comfort now.

Thank you both, for reaffirming my belief that true love exists and can persist.

Vasco and Maxine. Maxine and Vasco.

Whenever I saw one, I saw the other.

Inseparable, until death parted them.

Contact Wendi C. Thomas at 901-529-5896 or e-mail
Scripps Lighthouse

© 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online

See Also...
Tha Artivist Remembers Dr. Vasco Smith, A Friend Of The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival:

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