Howard Smith stands in the brightly lit resale room at the Franklin County Senior Center. A customer has just entered the store and is looking for a pair of shoes.
Smith blinks his eyes and points to the shoe area. Within a few minutes, the customer has found just what she’s looking for.
In this room, the tile floors are clean and free of clutter. The clothes hang neatly, spaced just so on the racks. Sweaters left over from winter are folded neatly in a small cubby. Shoes and other accessories are lined up in a smart fashion.
Smith has been in here today since 8:30. It’s his normal routine, Monday through Friday. He arrives at the center, says hello to his friends in the Adult Day room, and then makes his way through a common area, down a hallway, into the resale room.
“They wanted a volunteer so I thought I would help them out. When people come in and want to buy something, I sell it to them and make sure nobody packs nothing out without paying,” he explains.
Kristy Robinson Horine, a freelance writer from Paris, wrote this story about Smith for the Bluegrass Area Development District as part of their Older Americans Month recognition.
The senior center’s resale room is open to the public and all the sale proceeds go back into the center. This room, as well as the craft room across the hall, does double-duty. They both bring small profits, and they both allow seniors to continue being active.
Everyone needs to feel useful, after all, and Smith is no stranger to work.
When the store is empty of customers, he eases his slight frame into a chair and he shares his story.
Howard Smith was born on March 17, 1926 in a small, northeastern Franklin County community called Bald Knob. He was the fourth child, and only boy, born into a rural farming family. He attended Bagdad School up until the eighth grade, then dropped out to work with his father.
“We raised tobacco and corn and had a garden,” he recalls. “We had cows and horses and everything. My part was the tobacco. I set it, topped it, chopped it. Everything. I just took that part and I don’t know why, but I liked it and I did it.”
Little did he know that the work ethic and work knowledge gained on his family farm would help him in the years to come.
One Saturday afternoon, sometime in 1947, Smith decided to take a 30-mile cruise up to Owenton.
“I saw this girl walking up the street and I thought, ‘She’s not bad looking,’ and I just pulled over to the curb and started talking to her,” Smith says. He pauses a minute and stares hard at the memory, then blinks his dark blue eyes a few times.
“I told her I’d take her home and she said her mother wouldn’t like that.”
Being a gentleman, Smith didn’t push the issue. Instead, he and the girl, Pauline, stood at the curb and talked a while longer.
“Finally, she said she’d let me take her home. She introduced me to her mother and her mother didn’t know me from Adam because I was from Frankfort,” Smith chuckles at the memory and slaps his weathered hand on his knee. “When I got ready to leave I asked if it would be OK if I came down the next weekend and take her out to eat. It went from there.”
For three months, Smith made the 30-mile trip every weekend from Bald Knob to Owenton to court Pauline. At the end of those three months, she consented to marrying him. He was 21. She was 13.
Two years after they married, Smith went to a farm sale with no intention of buying the place. The 173 and a half-acre parcel was out Devil Hollow Road and belonged to an elderly widow.
“When I got there, the horse weeds was as tall as this ceiling here and the widow had a path cut into her back door,” Smith says.
He explains he had his eye on a nice barn up on the hill.
Some of the Goins family, who ran the local dairy, punched Smith in the side and kept telling him to buy it.
“I told them I can’t buy that, I ain’t got the money for it, and they said yes, I could, that they’d let me have it,” Smith says. “Well, it didn’t bring but $3,000. I bought that place and they gave me the money to pay for it. I paid it back my first year there in tobacco.”
Smith’s reminiscence is interrupted by a man named Paul who pushes his walker into the store and turns it around to perch on a little fold-down seat. Paul is the resident puzzle master, he says. He leans in close, elbows on the grips of the walker, his hands clasped in front of him.
“You know what my favorite thing about Howard is?” he asks, then answers his own question without pause. “His chicken dance!”
Paul and Smith share a laugh before Paul rises from the fold-down seat and wheels himself out into the hallways.
Smith smiles and ducks his head, suddenly overcome with shyness.
“I like music. I like to dance,” he says, then resumes his story.
He farmed the land on Devil Hollow for two years, then he and Pauline sold the place to rent a small country home. Instead of farming the land, Smith found a job in the Heel Department at the Genesco Shoe Factory on Barrett Street.
The year was 1951. Smith says he worked a machine that rolled hot glue on the heels and then it was his job to attach the heel to the rest of the shoe.
“It was hard work. I didn’t really like it, but I stayed there. There wasn’t no other jobs you could get right then,” he says.
In 1977, after Smith had worked there for 25 years, Genesco Shoe Factory closed its doors. Smith worked on for a time as night watchman, but knew his days at the factory were numbered. He went to his superintendent, a 53-year veteran of the factory, George Hocker, who promised Smith a different position with the state.
Smith grew up in an era where, if a man gave his word, he kept it. He had given his word to his wife that if he could make it, she wouldn’t ever have to work. Determined to keep his promise to his beloved Pauline, he pushed Hocker to keep his promise.
Within a short time, Hocker told Smith to head to the Capital Plaza Tower on Mero Street.
“It was 24 stories high and I worked in the tip top of it,” Smith says. “I started as a janitor and retired 15 years later as foreman.”
Smith retired in the early 90s. During his last few years at the Plaza, Pauline was diagnosed with breast cancer. She only lived five years after her diagnosis.
“I miss her,” Smith says, then looks away. “I sure miss her.”
When his shift is up, Smith and Barbara Harrod turn over the resale room to the next volunteer.
“Howard is a kind, quiet, pleasant fellow,” said Harrod, the assistant director of the Franklin County Senior Center’s Adult Day program. “He’s here every single day and he never says an unkind word to anyone.”
A separate arm of the center, Adult Day offers aide to participants. Some need help with mobility, as their bodies decline with the natural aging process. Some have Alzheimer’s or dementia. Smith isn’t in either of those categories. Instead, he often helps Harrod and the other aides in the program.