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February 4, 2013

Walter Smith recalls memories of Badin (N.C.), how he became publisher of The New York Beacon

Monday, February 4, 2013 — Some might consider the life of Walter Smith a rags to riches story. In some ways it is. But it is also a story of adhering to some thoughtful advice, knowing about opportunity and persevering through hardship.

Smith, 78, is CEO of The New York Beacon, a newspaper he has operated for the last 35 years that focuses on the African-American community. Like many publishers, he has seen the business change through the years.

Being in the newspaper business, Smith has plenty of stories to share, but to get the whole image of the man one has to travel back to his upbringing in Badin.

Growing Up

Walter Smith was born in Cheraw, S.C. in 1934, the seventh of what would be 10 children to Walter Smith Sr. and his wife, Belle.

Smith and his family moved when he was 6 months old to Badin, where his father had secured a job working for ALCOA.

“Badin was in need of African-American workers because of the heat and strenuous work in the plant,” said Smith, adding that white people mostly worked in management or were supervisors.

“The plant owned the whole town. It owned all the stores. It built the post office. It built both schools.”

There was a school for white pupils and a school for black students.

Despite segregation of schools and other amenities during the era, Smith recalled a fondness for the school, teachers and the time period.

“I think I grew up as a priviledged and cherished child. I always seemed to be the apple of everybody’s eye,” he said.

Smith remembered Pauline Donaldson, mother of jazz legend Lou Donaldson, was a mainstay at the school from when it opened until her death.

“I think she taught everybody in Badin,” Smith said.

The school had baseball, football and basketball teams, but it didn’t have a gymnasium. He said they used a court that was covered in cinders from the school boiler that were spread out to make a hard surface. The school’s auditorium was also used as a basketball court.

“As a result of the team running up and down the court and jumping up and down, the plaster from the ceiling would come down,” he said.

Still, he said it was a “beautiful school, a beautiful campus.”

He also recalled working as a caddy at the country club in Badin where he earned 50 cents for carrying a bag 18 holes, sometimes receiving a $1 tip after the five or six hours of play.

“Nobody wanted any bills,” he said.

“We had it all changed into nickels and dimes and quarters, so when we stuck our hands in our pockets everybody would know you had money.”

The Smiths later moved to a 40-acre farm. The landowner gave Smith’s father the house and they sharecropped the fields.

Some of “the happiest days of my life were spent out there on that farm because it was nonstop adventure,” Smith said.

He said he had a dog named Sam and a horse named Charlie.

“Whenever you saw me, you saw Sam and Charlie,” he said.

Charlie took Smith to the bus stop and waited in the afternoon to bring him back home, Smith said.

“If you came through there on Saturday at three o’clock Charlie would be waiting at the bus stop for me to come home,” he said.

“When I went into the Army, I think Charlie died of grief or loneliness. That was one of my friends going up.”

And every dog he has had since has been named Sam.

Smith did not have any brothers, only sisters, but he considered Johnnie Haywood Harris, Haywood Nelson and Thomas Christian as brothers.

“I was always attaching myself to friends who I adopted as brothers.”

Moving On Up

In 1953, Smith, 19, ventured off to serve his country for 18 months in Korea. Upon coming back to the States, he landed in New York and began his career.

He found a job with Automatic Data Processing (ADP), a company that had just two offices when he began, but now has $10 billion in revenues and approximately 570,000 clients.

He had been working for ADP for less than a year, making $75 per week, $100 sometimes with overtime, when he suddenly noticed something about his pay.

“I looked at my paycheck one week, and $15 a week was coming out for stock options. I said, ‘I can’t afford this.’ ”

His boss replied, “It’s stock. I’m giving you an option to buy stock,” Smith remembered.

“He said, ‘You keep that and pretty soon it will be worth some money.’ ”

Smith insisted that he did not need stock, so his boss came up with a plan that changed the young worker’s life.

“I’m going to give you a $20 raise, that way you can keep your stock and you’ve got an extra $5,” Smith remembers his boss proclaiming.

A few years go by and Smith noticed the amount of respect from his co-workers has increased substantially. He did not know the reason behind this, and with segregation still in play, he was the only black employee at the time.

In 1964, Smith decided he wanted to purchase a house on Long Island. The price was $18,500, but Smith did not have the money. He asked his boss for a $500 loan.

His boss told him to just cash in some of his stock, that he had the money.

On paper he was worth $2 million.

“I’m struggling to get to work and back and was a millionaire and didn’t know it,” Smith said.

“It was just a real Cinderella story.”

A Big Investment

Twelve years later, Smith met Bill Underwood, who was operating the Big Red News, a numerology tip sheet.

“I saw a potential for a good, thriving business. I made some suggestions to him as to how to convert the production of a numerology sheet into a business of a newspaper,” Smith said.

“It became such a popular publication that people wanted to advertise their local affairs in it, such as birthday parties, reunions, schools, churches and so on.”

With the demand for information, Underwood and Smith expanded the paper from an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet to an 8 1/2 x 14 sheet, then it grew to a tabloid paper with four pages, then to a 12-page tabloid, with help of advertisements from some of the larger department stores.

In 1981, Smith took part of his new-found riches and made an investment in his future. He purchased full control of the newspaper. In 1983, the paper changed its name to The New York Beacon.

Current Events

Although The New York Beacon has moved headquarters through the years, Smith said it still concentrates on providing general news to the African-American community of New York City and its five burroughs — Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and Queens.

To have a stronger voice in the region, Smith was one of the creators of the Northeast Publishers Association in 1990.

“That was to bring all the African-American newspapers in that area under an umbrella so we could sell advertising as a group and address issues as a group, and that gave us a much wider voice. And that has been successful,” he said.

He is also one of the region directors for the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

While the circulation of the paper has dropped from 100,000 in 1980 to about 30,000 per week now, Smith continues to believe in the power of the press.

“One thing we can rest assured of is the news that we gather and the news that we present is just as much relevant today as it was in the ’80s,” he said.

“What we have to do now is to find a way to deliver it in a way people want to read it. Information is still in demand, we just have to deliver it to today’s social media society. We’re trying to keep abreast of the technology of delivering news.”

Outside of the news business, Smith enjoys playing golf, swimming, fishing, traveling and spending time with his wife, Miatta, and children. He has homes in Puerto Rico, Miami, Atlanta and New York.

“You count your blessings as you go. Things can always be worse.”

Death Of A Star

Last February, Smith and two of his employees were among the 1,500 people who attended the “going home” service celebrating the life of entertainer Whitney Houston.

Smith’s entertainment editor, Don Thomas, was good friends with Whitney’s mother, Cissy. On her first time on the stage in doing live entertainment, she was introduced by Thomas.

“They never forgot that,” Smith said, adding that The Big Red News had a reputation for providing entertainment articles.

“I’ve been quite a vocal and outspoken civil rights activist myself so I’m no stranger to celebrities here in New York,” he said.

“I wrote an article in my newspaper and I refer to Whitney Houston as one of God’s angels, and in doing that I said you don’t see elderly angels, you don’t see big fat angels, you don’t see sick angels, you just see the epitome of beauty and grace when you see an angel. So Whitney was sent here as an angel.”

Smith said while hip hop was becoming a top genre, with content consisting of what he considers a “degredation of women” and “profane language,” Houston was going a different route.

“All Whitney sang was love songs,” he said.

“Whitney was sent here to show the world and show the gangsters that they didn’t have to degrade anybody.”

Smith said the funeral was quite touching and there were “more stars at her funeral than they had at the Grammys.”

A Lasting Tribute

One of the lasting images for the younger Smith was his father’s tragic death.

In 1958, the elder Smith had bought a house for his daughter, Willie Mae Harris.

They moved the house on a trailer to a lot in Harristown.

“When they got up to the house, they saw trees that needed to be cut down,” Smith said.

“My father and Willie Mae’s father-in-law decided to cut the tree down.”

The tree fell onto some telephone lines. The duo decided to push the tree off the lines, so they raised a galvanized pipe up and the pipe touched the lines, causing them to be electrocuted, Smith said.

“The whole neighborhood had to watch anytime he had a project,” Smith said.

“When they both got killed in the front yard, there must have been 25-30 people in the front yard watching.

“I felt my father was invicible. When his life got snuffed out at 53, I had a lot of questions about religion and went on a journey for 15-20 years.

“Once I got that part of my life straight, I never looked back. It was onward.

“My dad always wanted me to excel and be a great person and I’ve always tried to live up to his expectations.”

His father was a noted figure in the county, the newspaperman said.

“He established the civic league in Badin. During his day, workers at ALCOA, especially the black workers, had no chance to advance beyord the most menial jobs there,” he said.

“So my father petitiioned the union at ALCOA and he changed all that. The other black workers began to be promoted to higher jobs.”

Smith’s father also sought equality as far as recreation goes.

A nice pier was on one side of Badin Lake, along with a spot considered a lover’s lane, Smith said.

He remembered one night that he was sitting with his girlfriend and was approached to leave by two security guards.

“They told me I wasn’t allowed there because the area was for whites only. I protested and they threatened to beat me up and reached for my door handle. I locked the door and took off home to my dad, Walter Smith Sr,  who took it from there,” he said.

“My dad went down to the superintendent’s office. My father made demands for a similar place for the black folks.”

A park was constructed, along with a pier. A black doctor in Kingville brought a “yacht” and put it there for all to enjoy, Smith said.

“My father and his civic league members planted grass, they built picnic tables, they built barbecue pits. It was a beautiful area,” Smith said.

So Smith has a little unfinished business he would like to take care of in Stanly County.

“I’ve been trying to get the city council to rename the park after my father. I think he deserves that landmark in Badin, considering all the contributions he made to the community,” he said.

But Smith believed nothing was ever recorded as far as the request goes and Badin officials say they know nothing about the proposal.

The Future

Smith was recently named a McDonald’s 2013 Black Media Legend.

He, along with honorees Robin Roberts of ABC News, Lester Holt of NBC News, Don Lemon of CNN and others, were honored at an awards ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Feb. 1, the beginning of Black History Month.

Smith has no plans of retiring.

“I guess I’m with the genes of my mother. She never looked her age until she was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She lived to be 95,” he said.

“Once you own your own business, there’s no such thing as retire. You work until you die.”

To submit story ideas, contact B.J. Drye at bj@stanlynewspress.com or (704) 982-2121 ext. 25.

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