Wilson Smith, Food Lion co-founder, dies

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SALISBURY  — Wilson Smith, one of the three founders of Salisbury-based Food Lion, died early this morning at age 93.
Through his investments in the grocery chain, Smith shared his personal fortune, becoming, for example, the greatest benefactor of Rowan Regional Medical Center.
But it was his energy, work ethic, faith, behind-the-scenes generosity and love of family and friends that most people will remember.
His wife, Evelyeen, once complained that “he’s always 10 feet in front of me, wherever he goes.”
Smith, known as “Bill” by friends, once told the Post that he always tried to make sure he knew what he was going to do the next day before his head hit the pillow.
“I don’t get up to an empty day,” he said.
It was Smith and brothers Ralph and Brown Ketner who started Food Town with their first Salisbury store in December 1957. To raise capital for the venture, the men invested everything they personally owned — Smith borrowed on his insurance and put up his house — before going through the telephone directory, calling friends and family for the rest.
The trio sold stock in the company at $10 a share. Many of the friends and neighbors who held on to their stock, despite a first decade when the small chain struggled to survive, became millionaires later.
The company, propelled by a low-pricing concept and an expense-saving culture, grew to be a Top 10 grocery chain and is now steered by Belgium-based Del Haize, an investment partner Ralph Ketner first brought in during the 1970s.
Ralph Ketner, 90, who is vacationing in Las Vegas, heard the news of his friend’s death this morning. Smith broke a leg in two places late last week and had been in the hospital since then, with family constantly by his side.
“I went to the hospital right before I left,” Ketner said. “It was obvious then the Lord would be good to take him.”
Ketner said Smith was “the finest Christian man I ever knew in my life.”
“I never heard him say a word of profanity or say a bad thing about anyone,” Ketner said.
Smith and Ralph and Brown Ketner had all worked together even before World War II for grocer Glenn Ketner, Ralph and Brown’s older brother.
This morning, Ketner figured he and Smith had been connected with each other in some fashion for 70 years.
“He was a settling influence on me and Brown,” Ketner said. “He was just part of the family, or at least I would like to claim I was part of his family.”
Brown Ketner died in 1994.
Born in Spartanburg, S.C., during World War I, Smith moved to Winston-Salem with his family at age 2. His dad was a meat cutter, who sent his boys, Julian and Wilson, to stay with their Aunt Ada West in Salisbury after the boys’ mother died when Wilson was 8.
Smith seemed destined to be a grocer. In a 1990 interview, he told the Post he delivered groceries in his pull wagon as a boy, making nickels and dimes from the old Pickler’s Grocery.
The deliveries out of his wagon grew to more hours and work later at Paul Swicegood’s store. Out of high school, he worked for Carolina Stores and was transferred to Charlotte, where he made $9 a week.
That chain became Allen Stores, a forerunner of Winn-Dixie. Smith eventually worked his way back to  Salisbury, where a run of store closings led him to a job in 1938 with a man who would become a mentor and friend, Glenn Ketner Sr.
By 1940, Smith joined the Army Air Corps and started a five-year hitch. He entered the service as a private and emerged as a captain with five combat ribbons and a Bronze star.
He had married his sweetheart, Evelyeen Wyatt, in Lakeland, Fla., in the days before shipping out to Europe. After a short honeymoon in Florida, the couple did not see each other for two-and-a-half years, but they wrote letters every day.
By the end of the war, Smith and his unit were setting up air bases behind advancing U.S. forces as they made their way through France and into Germany.
Smith would later serve in the Air Force Reserve for 20 years, getting back into his uniform every Tuesday night, his son Ronnie once recalled.
Smith returned to Salisbury after the war, becoming an important cog in Glenn Ketner’s successful operation, which grew to 28 stores. In 1955, Winn-Dixie bought the Ketner stores, and Smith and Ralph and Brown Ketner suddenly found themselves working for a new owner.
Smith served as supervisor for eight Piedmont stores. Ketner became a Winn-Dixie buyer, and Brown headed meat operations for Winn-Dixie.
The men soured quickly on their new company, leading to their decision to create Food Town.
Smith recalled that he called a family meeting in the early days of Food Town and told his boys, Ronnie and Tim, that there wouldn’t be a lot of extra money around for extra clothing or candy. It made young Tim, a candy lover, cry.
Their father often was gone from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. during the week as he and the Ketners tried to keep Food Town afloat against intense competition from much bigger chains.
Smith would do anything in those early days: advertising man, store manager, janitor, sign painter and produce man.
Until Ralph Ketner’s low-pricing campaign paid off, the men tried everything — Little League suppers, pancake feeds and giveaways. With every promotion and every store opening, Smith worked tirelessly — part of his teamwork philosophy.
“”We had to work together,” he told the Post in 1990. “If they could see me mopping the floor, wearing a store apron, sweeping, dusting — if they saw me doing it — they knew I wasn’t asking them to do something I wouldn’t do.”
In his earliest days as a grocer, Smith became adept at the lettering for window advertisements. Stores would buy drop chalk from drugstores, mix it with water and use the solution as a paint to promote their daily and weekly sales.
It washed off easily. The sign-making, especially in retirement, would become a pastime for Smith, who graduated to colored pencils, paints and magic markers to create signs for the Kiwanis Pancake Festival, class reunions and to welcome home new babies.
As Food Town’s growth exploded and the chain became Food Lion, Smith supervised all the stores and essentially was the company’s early real estate department with Ralph Ketner. Smith was in charge of equipping, staffing and getting each new store into operation.
He acknowledged in 1990 that after years of constant travel to set up new stores and find sites for other ones, the job became a grind. When he retired as a company vice president in 1979, the chain had close to 100 stores, with an even greater growth explosion to come.
Today, Food Lion has about 1,300 stores under the Food Lion, Harvey’s, Bloom, Bottom Dollar and Reid’s nameplates.
Smith retired from the Food Lion board of directors in 1984.
Though he was worth millions, Smith lived a simple life in retirement, faithfully attending Salisbury Kiwanis Club meetings, folding  Sunday bulletins for St. John’s Lutheran Church, making signs for friends and tending to his pets and backyard flowers.
He and his family set up the Smith Foundation as a vehicle for their charitable giving, but Smith and Evelyeen often made contributions to various causes anonymously. They routinely paid scholarships for many residents at the Baddour Memorial Center — a model home for the developmentally disabled n Senatobia, Miss.
Survivors include his wife, Evelyeen, sons Ronnie and Tim and two grandchildren.