Former choir director now gives voice to history
By DAMIAN DOMINGUEZ
Dec. 16, 2017
GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — Whether conducting a choir touring through Europe or helping tell people's stories through museum exhibits, Marion Smith's life has been driven by a desire to learn and connect with others.
In his office upstairs at The Museum Greenwood, the room is strewn with items — classic Americana represented by retro kitchen equipment alongside a framed, faded portrait of a World War II soldier. As the museum's coordinator of exhibits, it's his job to piece together an educational, captivating story, told through relics and pieces of other people's lives.
"It excites me, and I'm learning something new and reading sources about World War II and the Korean War," he said. "It's always trying to get the community to look at things in another way."
The upcoming exhibits, titled "The Black Solider" and "A War on Two Fronts," highlight the experience of African-American soldiers during World War II. "The Black Soldier" exhibit will complement the other national exhibit by featuring local black veterans. He's conducted initial interviews and already received yellowed documents of veterans' service histories.
As he gathers information and finds out how to convey it in educational and entertaining manners, the job brings his breadth of experience to the forefront.
"I'm constantly learning and able to bring to bear my experience in education, especially teaching and even singing," he said.
Smith began at the museum Jan. 10, but for decades before that was dedicated to music education and conducting choirs.
He was born in Prichard, Alabama and was raised in a large family with six siblings. From a very early age, he was interested in choir and music. When he left home, he went to Xavier University in Louisiana for his bachelor's degree in music, then to Pullman University in Washington State for his Master of Arts in music.
"It was so far across the country, my mother said I might as well be living in China," Smith said. "I went and had no regrets. I had a wonderful time."
He taught high school after graduating, but knew he wanted to teach at a college. He took a job at Mississippi Valley State University and spent three years as a choir conductor there, but knew he wanted more.
"I knew if I was going to go further, I needed to have a doctorate," he said.
While he worked on his dissertation at Washington University for three years, he worked at the College of Charleston and later got a job teaching at Lander University. He finished his doctorate in 1986, and went on to teach at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
"Eckerd gave me a lot of opportunities I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else, I think," he said. "The first president there provided me with wings, and the second president there said, 'now fly.'"
The choirs Smith conducted and directed toured every year, singing across the country. His choirs played Carnegie Hall twice and went on four international tours, taking him to England, China, Spain and Italy.
"As part of my teaching there ... I took students to Europe at least 18 times," he said. "The history of western civilization, since the Greeks, is the history of music."
In 2014, after more than two decades at Eckerd, Smith retired. He knew Florida wasn't the state where he wanted to retire, and, since he left Lander, he had traveled back to Greenwood to visit friends here. He moved to South Carolina, joined the Greenwood Festival Chorale, and within six months was the chorale's director and conductor.
The chorale offered him yet another opportunity to explore, musically, and he became choir director at First Greenwood ARP Church. He took a job to occupy his time, and started working for Hallmark during peak card-buying season.
"I was basically stocking shelves at the Walmart," he said. "I lost 10 pounds just working there, so it was great for me in that way."
But soon he found himself overwhelmed. He was retired, but found himself juggling responsibilities as he took on the job at the museum.
"I had to give up something," he said. "I had been on that road where I was doing two or three things at a time."
He wanted to give himself more to the museum, and to enjoy his free time by visiting family and traveling more often. His farewell concert with the chorale, he said, was the crown jewel of his career — they performed "Requiem for the Living," by Dan Forrest, alongside the Greenwood High School Eagle Singers.
Between his education in the arts and his skill at working with people, Executive Director Karen Jennings with The Museum Greenwood said Smith was the perfect choice for the job.
"One of his biggest strengths is involving the community in creating the exhibits," she said. "He has a real flair for creating interesting and really aesthetically pleasing displays."
He's a natural scholar, she said, and dedicates himself to researching exhibit topics thoroughly — which means he enjoys the work more, and he gives each exhibit more depth and panache.
"It excites me," he said. "It's like you're getting ready to sing the big part, and the decorations stay up for three months."