Once in a while, our lives intersect with those of a person who has made a positive and blessed difference in this world. Two years ago now, that happened to me. My life touched the life - and the death - of Pat Smith. I heard about his death on the local news, and then the follow-up stories began to run on the air and in the local and national papers, and I learned much more about his life. What a guy he was!
Pat Smith was a dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for more than 15 years and was elected to the group’s international board of directors in October 2005. He had served on the local board for seven years and had been its President for three years. Norman Hanley, Smith’s nephew, says, “My uncle was a great motivator. He’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to a lot of good things.”
Pat Smith, co-owner of Versa Tech Automation, an industrial automation company in Lexington, Kentucky, was one of 49 people who died in the crash of Comair Flight 5191 just outside of Lexington, Kentucky’s airport on August 27, 2006. He was flying back to a Habitat building site in Gulfport, Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The crews he was bossing had already built two homes there and hoped to finish 13 homes by Christmas of that year.
The jet on which he was flying crashed just beyond the runway – the wrong, too-short runway - due to pilot error only seconds after take-off. All of the people on board were killed in the crash and subsequent fire except the co-pilot.
Smith was 57 when he died, but his accomplishments seem those of a far older man. “He connected with everybody,” said his son-in-law, Steve Combs. “And he made sure everyone had a good time. He loved helping people and inspiring others to do good works. He had a disarming way of getting people involved. He’d say, ‘Hey, what are you doing next week? You’re not busy, are you?’
As a Habitat volunteer, Smith participated in several Global Village trips to West Africa and Northern Ireland as well as serving on Jimmy Carter’s Work Projects in South Africa and Mexico. He was named Habitat’s Volunteer of the Year in 2003.
A fellow Habitat worker, Dennis Pike, was quoted in the Habitat World Newsletter after his death as saying, “Pat Smith was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. He was a husband, father, grandfather and friend of hundreds.
“I started Habitat builds with Pat in 2000. We have visited every continent except Antarctica, but it was in his plans to build the first Habitat house there.
“Our first build together was in Assassan, Ghana, where under Pat’s guidance, Habitat built 56 houses, a church, a library and a school. Pat had a way of calling me and saying, 'I’ve got an idea,' Pike said! “Then I knew I would be headed off on a new adventure soon.”
Pike recounts going to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. “When we saw the tent cities and graveyards in Galle, I saw dismay on Pat’s face. ‘One house at a time’, Habitat’s motto, seemed miniscule in the face of such disaster.”
Pat and his wife Jean stayed in Galle for three months, through Christmas of that year, finishing that project.
Pike says, “Pat touched more lives than anyone can count. He nurtured more Habitat volunteers and employees than anyone will know. Now it is up to us, his friends and beneficiaries, to continue his legacy and carry out the work for which he has prepared us.”
As his brother, Pete Smith, worked on a Habitat home in Louisville, Kentucky on Caldwell Street in 2007, an empty chair stood by the construction site. “He’s still working today,” said Pete. “Look at what’s been done for Habitat in his name since he died. It’s unbelievable.”
Smith said in 2004, in remarks at the time of his being named Volunteer of the Year, “You can’t help but fall in love with the people. It just hits you. We’re all alike. We’re all human beings. Sometimes people get dealt a bad hand. We have an obligation to help.”
At Smith’s funeral service, a hammer and an African scepter joined the bread and the wine on the communion table. The Rev. Charles Howell said, “Pat, organize the angels like you did us. And help build the homes, the simple spaces of dignity, that we hope to inhabit someday.”
Friends of Pat Smith have established an endowment to fund further Habitat houses in his name and enable other Habitat volunteers to build overseas. For more information on the endowment, or to make a contribution, please visit www.lexhabitat.org.
Last month my husband and I attended a fund-raiser held on the two-year anniversary of Smith’s death. We enjoyed the picnic food and the oldies music as we celebrated Pat’s life and work. It felt wonderful to be a small part of his legacy of love.
There is a tendency to politicize the needs of the disadvantaged poor of our country in this climate of dissension over how to aid those enmeshed in poverty. It is easy, from the comfort of our own homes and good jobs, to tell poor people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. After all, we have done so. In our pride of accomplishment, it is convenient to forget that good fortune and perhaps the advantages of being born white and of a solid working-class or middle-class family have had something to do with our success in the world.
Further than that, I have seen in my own church, a caring and sincere community of worship, a tendency to shrink away from those who might choose to attend one of our services in wrinkled clothes and unwashed hair. It is as though it were in inexcusably bad taste to be poor.
Yet each person has a story. The degree of suffering which has characterized the lives of many poor men and women is almost unimaginable. Pat Smith’s response to felt need was immediate and generous. There was no judgment and no hesitation. He made bricks and boards holy for me.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. As we witness to the difference Pat Smith has made, let us witness as he did to the goodness of people everywhere. And the next time someone asks, let's say yes and donate what we can to Habitat for Humanity.