Editor’s Note: This article kicks off an occasional series featuring Van Buren County residents or landmarks. If you know someone you think would make a good subject for a profile, e-mail email@example.com or call 745-5175.
By Jackie Sikes
Part 1: The day was gray and dismal. A heavy fog and the promise of rain was in the air. Watson Smith was the ray of sunshine on this otherwise gloomy day as he took us 100 years back with stories of his past.
Watson Smith was born on March 11, 1913, in Choctaw, Ark. He reports that he has lived in Van Buren County all of his life, with the exception of the four years he was in Michigan for his defense work during the war in 1943. He has lived in Shirley since 1949.
The sixth of 12 children, he was born the same day his father turned 36 years old. The two not only shared the same birthday, but they also share many years of knowledge as Watson’s father lived just 25 days short of being 96.
A major influence in Watson’s life, his father remains a main character in the stories he shares about his childhood.
When Watson was only 5 years old he had an accident involving a knife and an egg. He explained, "I fell off the door steps with a pocket knife in my hand and I stuck it in my nose and it came out down here on my lip. Now my daddy was a fixer. He was down about 3 or 400 yards from the house and he said, ‘Mom get me an egg.’ So she got him a hen egg and she asked, ‘What do you want with a hen egg?’ and he said, ‘Just get me a hen egg, and I’ll show you what I’m gonna do.’ So he broke that egg and he took that dang egg membrane out of it and stretched it over my nose. That thing stuck like a Band-Aid. Then three or four days later he took that Band-Aid off and that nose healed right up. You can still see a little scar atop my nose from it."
He continued, "Back in those days my mother would ring the dinner bell to call my dad up to the house when she needed him. We had one of them big dinner bells and Dad would be plowing and he would come when we rang the bell. I’m sure someone in the family still has that bell."
Watson recalls another story when he was hurt as a youngster, this time involving a bird and a wayward tree limb.
"When I was 8 years old, it was in the spring of the year, we were eating dinner and a jay bird started a big fuss. They were having a big time. Well, down the road about 50 yards or so, they were having a big ole time and Otis and Brewer wanted to see what was the matter with those jay birds, they were my two older brothers. Those jay birds had found a big chicken snake that had climbed a tree and it was about 20 feet high, and he was out on a big limb. The limb was probably about 4 inches wide, it was pretty big, and there was a bird’s nest. That snake was up there after those eggs or those little ones, whatever was up there.
"Now Otis, he had an arm that was second to nothing, and he got to throwing rocks at that snake. He soon knocked him out of that tree but before he knocked that snake down he chunked a big rock up there, about as big as his fist, and it hit that tree limb. Well, I was standing there looking up at that snake on that limb and when that limb broke off, it came right back and hit me on top of the head. My brothers thought that they probably killed me. It knocked me clean out. Anyway Otis, he was the oldest boy, he carried me up to the house where my dad doctored me up again using a hen egg."
Besides being doctored up as a young boy, Watson also really enjoyed school and got along well with his peers; however, there was one teacher of whom he was really afraid.
"The reason I was scared of him was he gave my oldest brother a paddling. That scared the tar out of me. I thought I would be next, but I never was."
In fact Watson did well in school, made good friends, his studies came fairly easy to him, and not all teachers scared Watson. As a matter of fact one of his fondest memories of school occurred in the fifth grade and was brought about by a teacher named Miss Ellis.
"In the fifth grade I had a lady teacher who was born and bred in the Barrens Community. Miss Ellis was her name. She told us at the beginning of school that when school was out in the spring of the year, she would give somebody a prize for the student that made the greatest progress over the year. So, during that last week of school, she called me and Millie Moore up to the front of the class and she gave us a little red-backed dictionary. That little red-backed dictionary was the greatest prize I ever had. I worshiped that dictionary."
Doing well in school and being recognized for his achievements may have been part of the inspiration and encouragement Watson needed that prompted him to seek a career in education. Watson earned his degree in education from the University of Arkansas. He first taught school at Star Mountain and then later in Scotland and in Shirley. He taught mostly agriculture, shop, and sometimes math.
Watson started the agriculture program at the school in 1947, drove school buses, and coached ball teams. In 1975 he retired from his teaching career, but his civil service and devotion to helping others didn’t end there. He didn’t only limit himself to school programs, but also used his healing skills to on many sick animals that came his way.
Furthermore, he was also instrumental in helping a few prominent Arkansas politicians get elected. Former state Sen. Stanley Russ has thanked Watson personally for his help in getting him elected FFA (Future Farmers of America) president at Camp Couchdale. This election, he notes, was a turning point in his life.
Watson has also served as the local county election commissioner and worked long and hard as a Bill Clinton supporter all through Clintons’ political career. A few years ago when the family was in Hot Springs, former President Bill Clinton was asked if he remembered Watson Smith. He replied, "I sure do." Clinton signed a ball cap and said, "Give this to Watson and give him my best regards."
The cap reads, "A Great Many Thanks. Bill Clinton."
Read the rest of Watson Smith’s story in next week’s Democrat