Wagener’s Smith to receive massive Clemson salute

August 31, 2018

WAGENER — One of Aiken County’s longest-serving educators is in line for a salute from 80,000-plus neighbors this weekend, with help from Clemson University’s athletic department.

Spencer C. Smith, a World War II Army veteran and a former agriculture teacher at Wagener-Salley High School, is to be honored Saturday during Clemson’s football game versus Furman. Details were not clear, but one report was that Smith would be recognized as the “Hero of the Game” during the second timeout of the first quarter.

Smith, 96, is a native of Madison, a tiny community in Oconee County. He enrolled at Clemson in 1940 but did not graduate until 1947, due to a global conflict that consumed his time starting in 1942. In 1944, he was shot in the face and taken out of action for the remainder of the war. His degree was in vocational agriculture, and he became the “ag” teacher at Wagener-Salley High School, serving from 1947 until 1982. For the next 18 years, he was a member of the Aiken County Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

His Army experiences included seeing much of western Europe as a member of the 5th Armored Division. He and his cohorts landed in Normandy in early July 1944, about a month after D-Day, and reportedly wound up becoming the first Allied troops to set foot on German soil.

Having learned a few lessons about priorities and perseverance, Smith reportedly had plenty of wisdom to share with his students in the decades ahead.

“He cared about people, and didn’t care what color, whether you were rich or poor,” said local businessman Doug Busbee, one of Smith’s hundreds of students from across the decades. “He cared about helping young men and women to try to have something for the future, and he taught you a lot about life – not just about agriculture but … how to conduct yourself.”

Ronnie O’Toole, who works for Busbee, added, “He disciplined us, just like we were one of his children. He would discipline you, but you would still love him. You had so much respect for him.”

Busbee said, “He was a daddy to a lot of the boys. You’d talk to Mr. Smith when you wouldn’t talk to your daddy … He was more than a teacher. I mean, he genuinely cared about people. It didn’t mean he didn’t tear you up, because very few of us got through there without being tore up.”

Smith’s annual challenges, Busbee said, included taking dozens of boys to Cherry Grove (near Myrtle Beach), for FFA Camp Week. “He would handle everything just like he was dealing with his own family. He’d advise you. He didn’t have to spank you, a lot of times,” and he never did it in anger, Busbee added.

Springfield resident Wayne Furtick, a 1958 graduate of the high school, made similar comments. “He was probably the best thing that ever happened to most of us. He kept us from going the wrong way.”

Furtick is now mostly retired from farming but still helps neighbors with farm efforts. Regarding Smith, he added, “He was just a solid man all around.”

Donna Campbell, one of Smith’s daughters, said her father is profoundly grateful for the chance to have returned from the war and to have a positive influence on so many young lives in the following decades.

One of the success stories involves Anderson resident Howard Corbett, a 1967 graduate who had a less-than-stellar academic record in high school. Smith, however, had faith in Corbett and went to bat on his behalf, helping Corbett gain admission on academic probation – to Spartanburg Junior College (now known as Spartanburg Methodist College).

Corbett’s first semester was disastrous, but he applied himself and won a place on the dean’s list for each of his following semesters, leading to a master’s degree from Clemson and a career as president and CEO of CNI, a farming co-op spread throughout the South and specializing in crop-protection products.

“Mr. Smith was always behind me in all of that, pushing me and prodding me at every step,” Corbett said. “He saw something in me that I could never find in myself, and … that’s the kind of attention he gave to boys from Wagener.”

“Girls from Wagener” also joined the mix eventually.

Corbett noted, “I think … what he did for me, he did the same for others, in terms of making people believe in themselves, in achieving things that they probably didn’t think they could do. He’s just a rarity.”

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