Food Lion co-founder Wilson Smith dies
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Even with his last words, Wilson Smith was thinking about others.
With friends and family in his hospital room Tuesday, the Food Lion co-founder took off his oxygen mask so he could be understood one more time.
“The last I thing any of us heard him say plainly was, ‘Do you need anything?’ ” said longtime friend and retired Food Lion store manager Ronnie Marsh.
“That was him. That was his whole life.”
Wilson Smith died early Wednesday morning at 93. In 1957 he started Food Lion (then Food Town) with Ralph and Brown Ketner. That one Salisbury store would eventually grow to today’s 1,300 stores under the Food Lion banner.
Thanks to his investments in the grocery chain, Smith shared his personal fortune most notably with Rowan Regional Medical Center, where the outpatient center and heart and vascular center are named for him and/or his family.
His monetary contributions also left a significant legacy with Catawba College, Lenoir-Rhyne University, the Baddour Memorial Center for challenged adults, the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and St. John’s Lutheran Church, where he had served in virtually every capacity.
But it was his energy, work ethic, faith, motivational skills and caring for family and friends that people will remember most.
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.
Before Smith and the Ketners could open their first Food Town store in December 1957, they had to raise capital. 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.
Propelled by a low-pricing concept and an expense-saving culture, the company grew to become a Top 10 grocery chain and is now steered by Belgium-based Delhaize, an investment partner Ralph Ketner first brought in during the 1970s.
Ralph Ketner, 90, received word of Smith’s death Wednesday morning while he was vacationing in Las Vegas. 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 before the birth of Food Town for grocer Glenn Ketner Sr. — Ralph and Brown’s older brother.
Ketner figured Wednesday 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.
Wilson Smith was an unassuming man, who despite his wealth, followed a simple lifestyle directed at looking after others. Nothing illustrated that more than one of his favorite pastimes — making signs.
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, which kept Smith busy coming up with new artwork. Later, he hand-painted signs and banners — hundreds of them — for events such as the Kiwanis Pancake Festival, class reunions, anniversaries, birthdays and births.
He often did it without a request and always free of charge.
“He was the most giving family man I ever met,” said Donnie Marsh, who with his twin brother, Ronnie, considered Smith his mentor. “He just was a father figure. The perfect man. Perfect husband, father, Christian, and he always cared about the other person. That pretty well sums it up.”
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 July 1941, Smith joined the Army Air Corps, entering the service as a private and emerging 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 as a commander in the local Air Force Reserve unit 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 small chain, 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 general supervisor for eight Piedmont stores that originally belonged to Glenn Ketner. Ralph 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 start Food Town.
Smith recalled that he called a family meeting in the early days of Food Town and told his sons, Ronnie and Tim, that there wouldn’t be a lot of 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, the Ketners and a hardworking team of lieutenants they assembled 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.”
As Food Town’s growth exploded, 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 and secretary in 1979, the Food Town chain had close to 100 stores, with an even greater growth explosion as Food Lion to come.
Today, Food Lion operates in 11 states, mostly in the Southeast, and has 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.
He and his family set up the Wilson L. Smith Family Foundation as a vehicle for their charitable giving, but Smith and Evelyeen often made contributions to various causes anonymously.
Jim Freeman, retired Rowan Regional Medical Center president, said Smith — over his years of tremendous support for the hospital — became his biggest motivator.
“I never wanted to face Wilson Smith and let him down,” Freeman said. “He was so sincere and so humble. I just wanted to make sure anything in which his name was involved would reflect who Wilson Smith really was.
“I just thought so much of him. I wanted to be like him when I grew up.”
Smith’s funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John’s Lutheran Church, with a visitation to follow in the church fellowship hall. His burial will be private.
Survivors include his wife, Evelyeen; sons Ronnie Smith and his wife, Janis, and Tim Smith and his wife, Rosemary; grandchildren Ashley Smith McMillan and Stuart Smith; and great-grandchild Emerson Rose McMillan.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.
Wilson Smith milestones
Aug. 1, 1917 — Smith is born in Spartanburg, S.C.
Spring 1935 — Graduates from Boyden High School
1938 — Goes to work for Glenn Ketner’s grocery stores
July 23, 1941 — Enters service with Army Air Corps.
July 15, 1943 — Marries Evelyeen Wyatt.
Spring 1945 — Receives the Bronze star during World War II
November 1945 — Named advertising manager and produce supervisor for Ketner’s Super Markets.
January 1957 — Named general supervisor for eight Winn-Dixie stores in the Piedmont.
Dec. 12, 1957 — Opens first Food Town store with Ralph and Brown Ketner.
May 1965 — Adds duties of operations manager to his role as Food Town vice president and secretary.
1979 — Retires from Food Town.
1984 — Retires from Food Lion’s board of directors
March 1991 — Establishes the Wilson Smith Family Endowment Fund at Lenoir-Rhyne College.
August 1994 — Smith and his family give $2 million toward a new outpatient center at Rowan Memorial Hospital. The center is later named for him, as is a heart and vascular center. The gift is one of many more contributions to come for the hospital.
September 1996 — Pledges $1 million to Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
October 1996 — Named Kiwanis International George F. Hixson Fellow
May 1997 — Receives honorary doctorate degree from Lenoir-Rhyne College.
November 1997 — Suffers mild stroke at age 80, but recovers fully.
June 1998 — Receives Bachman Award for Distinguished Leadership from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
January 1999 — Has quadruple bypass heart surgery in Charlotte.
June 1999 — Gives $1 million to Catawba College
January 2006 — Named Salisbury Lion’s Club Man of the Year
May 2007 — Receives honorary doctorate degree from Catawba College
January 2008 — Winds up six years as honorary chairman for successful $25 million “Partners in Progress” campaign for Rowan Regional Medical Center.
March 2011 — Gives $1 million to Lutheran Services for the Aging
April 20, 2011 — Dies at Rowan Regional Medical Center at age 93.