Editorial: Wilson Smith: Dedication and generosity

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wilson Smith and his family have been as generous to Rowan County as Smith was hard-working and honest. That’s saying a lot.
The Food Lion co-founder died Wednesday at the age of 93, leaving a large legacy both professionally and personally.
In 1957, Smith, Ralph Ketner and Brown Ketner opened the first Food Town store, the beginnings of today’s 1,300-store Food Lion chain. They had considerable experience in the business, but it was a gamble, nevertheless. The placid 1950s were growing contentious. The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” was banned in Boston. President Eisenhower sent federal forces into Little Rock, Ark., to enforce integration. Sputnik was launched. And so was Food Town.
From the start, Smith was a hard worker, willing to don a store apron and tackle any role — advertising man, store manager, janitor, sign painter and produce man. As the company expanded, he moved into the role of setting up and starting new stores. He retired in 1979 as operations vice president; by then the company had nearly 100 stores. Later Food Town became Food Lion, spreading out to 11 states. The company created thousands of jobs and made millionaires of its founders and original investors. Local colleges, arts organizations and nonprofits owe much of their existence to the success of Food Lion.
That alone is quite a legacy, but it’s what Wilson Smith did after Food Lion that tells the story. Though he maintained a low profile, Smith and his family committed themselves to improving the community and supporting key institutions. Some of their work is easy to see. The Smith name is on Rowan Regional Medical Center’s outpatient center and its heart and vascular center. Large gifts to Catawba College and other organizations are well-known. Giving like that inspires others. But Wilson and Evelyeen Smith were also apt to make anonymous donations.
Their heart was in the giving, not the recognition. That may be the finest legacy of all.