Celebration of Life Set for Smithson
Friends and family members will hold a celebration of Michael Smithson's life Jan. 13 at the late Southern Pines Town Council member's farm on Youngs Road.
Smithson, father of current Councilman Chris Smithson, died at age 63 on Christmas Day. He is remembered with fondness and respect by those who worked with him.
Norris Hodgkins Jr., former mayor and longtime civic leader, has known three generations of Smithsons, serving first on the council with Michael's father, Lee, in the 1960s. He met Lee's son Michael in 1975, when both Smithson and Hodgkins' wife, Sara, were elected to the nonpartisan council for the first time.
"Sara led the ticket," said Hodgkins. Michael Smith-son supported her for mayor, but the 3-2 vote went to E.J. Austin.
"We've always appreciated Michael's support in that 3-2 vote," Hodgkins said in a telephone interview. "Michael's greatest interests were in planning and zoning, environmental matters and the good of the town. He was very well prepared."
Both Lee Smithson and Michael were known for having "very well considered" positions on matters affecting the town, according to Hodgkins.
The family business, Smithson's of Southern Pines Inc., which makes custom bed and window treatments for the interior design trade, was relocated here 50 years ago by Lee Smithson, a Missouri native who had founded it some years earlier.
"Lee Smithson just came floating in from the sky," recalled Hodgkins, who became friends with the first generation of Smithsons to move to Southern Pines and serve on the council in the 1960s.
Lee was flying over Southern Pines one time, said Hodgkins, and was so impressed with the charm and rural beauty of the little town that he decided to relocate the family business then and there. Michael grew up in Southern Pines, succeeding his father in the family business.
When Lee and Michael served, council terms were non-staggered and members were elected every two years. The five members selected the mayor from among themselves, and sometimes there were politics involved, recalls Hodgkins.
Chris Smithson is the third generation to serve on the elected council. As a 30-year-old, he ran and won a two-year term in 2003 and was re-elected to a four-year term in 2005 when the election methods changed to longer, staggered terms and popular election of the mayor.
"It must be in the Smithson genes," Chris joked. "An interest in zoning."
After working and marrying, he had returned home from Baltimore in 2002 to take over the family business.
Smithson said his first recollection of his father "was seeing my dad's firefighting equipment at home." Like most small boys, he was most impressed with the paraphernalia of firefighting, neat suits and hats and boots, plus riding on a big red fire engine sounding the alarm. The family lived on East New Hampshire Avenue then, within easy biking distance for Michael to engage in his beloved volunteer activity. He stuck with it for 20 years, until 1997.
Chris remembers being taken in arms to meetings at age 4 or 5 when his father was on the council.
"I was probably the first Southern Pines resident to attend a council meeting in pajamas," he quipped.
Smithson sees his father's most durable legacy as the creation of the town's water treatment plant -- which was paid for by Southern Pines residents, who enacted their own bond issue to build it in the early 1980s while Smithson was a member of council. At the time, the growing town needed a reliable water supply system and couldn't interest either Moore County or nearby town elected officials in creating a countywide or regional system, so the town went it alone.
Chris Smithson also said his father had told him about trying to get the council interested in changing General Business zoning in place along U.S. 1 at a key gateway location in Southern Pines to limit land use to something less intensive, such as Office and Professional.
No one acted until after Leith bought the property, with plans to build as many as four auto dealerships on the property, which was already zoned for it.
The council of 2005 voted belatedly to rezone the tract to exclude Leith's proposed land use after a vocal outcry. Chris Smithson warned everyone of the failure to act. Now Leith is suing the town for $10 million.
Former Mayor Jane Clark, who still lives in Southern Pines, remembered Chris Smithson's father as a person who "did his homework and loved Southern Pines." She was top vote-getter in her first election in 1983 and remembers Smithson's support of her mayoral bid as simply the right thing to do.
Smithson loved to indulge in a favorite hobby of building model railroad cars, of which he'd made "hundreds," Chris recalls. He remembers his father helping the local Model Railroad Club get space in the basement of the town-owned Campbell House for its meetings back in the 1980s.
Michael's son, Chris, recalled that his father's other love manifested itself in his purchase of a bell to hang on a fire engine in memory of the old days.
Sara Lindau can be reached at 693-2473 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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