Wineka column: Wilson Smith covered a lot

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 22, 2011

SALISBURY — It’s difficult for me to write about Wilson Smith without mentioning “Boxie.”
For five years, back in the 1980s, Wilson and Evelyeen Smith had a backyard visitor every summer — a box turtle, who seemed to hang around from May to September.
Wilson Smith would dig up worms from his compost pile to feed Boxie. The turtle also liked cantaloupe and would eat out of Wilson and Evelyeen’s hands. He even walked around the yard with them. Wilson had to be careful when he mowed because Boxie would follow him, like a turtle-puppy.
The most incredible thing was that Evelyeen could go to the back door and in a high-pitched voice yell, “Boxie, Boxie,” and the box turtle would emerge from the Smiths’ backyard flower bed and amble up to her.
He sometimes rubbed against her feet and legs.
I have other memories of Wilson Smith, the Food Lion co-founder who died Wednesday at age 93. They mostly come after he retired from Food Town and had more time for the Salisbury Kiwanis Club, St. John’s Lutheran Church and all the institutions he realized his money and time could help — from the hospital to Lenoir-Rhyne University.
He had what I like to call a fast walk. While I’m an ambler, like Boxie, Wilson Smith covered ground quickly, as if he were speeding down a grocery store aisle, looking for another shelf to arrange.
Smith always seemed to have a purpose, and many times it was directed at looking out for others. Jim Freeman, retired president of Rowan Regional Medical Center, said Smith considered everyone he knew family.
When Freeman talked with Smith on the telephone, “He would make you feel like that was the most important call he received today, and you were the most important person.”
My wife and I can vouch for that.
When my wife taught pre-school deaf children, Smith often would accompany her class to the old Tatum Tree Farm in Davie County and saw down a tree her students had chosen.
At the birth of our two sons, Smith hand-painted the “It’s A Boy” sign that we hung from our front awning. We still have that sign.
I think he invented random acts of kindness.
He became a father figure to the Marsh twins, Ronnie and Donnie.
The Marshes grew up about two blocks from the Smiths and attended school with Ronnie Smith, Wilson’s oldest son.
As soon as they could drive, the Marshes hired on as produce clerks at the Food Town No. 1 store at Ketner Center. That was in 1963. They eventually would become well-known store managers in Salisbury and lifelong friends with Smith.
After their retirement from Food Lion, the Marsh boys became tobacco salesmen and always made sure Smith had a good chewing tobacco supply.
“The most giving family man I ever met,” Donnie Marsh said.
Before he died in the hospital, Smith no doubt was worried most about Evelyeen back home.
Wilson Smith was devoted to his wife. They were married 67 years, but he liked to say she was married two-and-a-half years longer than he was, because of the time they spent apart during World War II.
After a quick honeymoon in Florida, Smith shipped out from there to the fighting overseas, leaving Evelyeen to be a young, but never forgotten bride back in Salisbury.
Every day of those two-and-a-half years they didn’t see each other, they wrote. They first met while Wilson was visiting Evelyeen’s sister, and he inquired about the younger girl with gorgeous legs and a nice bicycle.
Over the years, he liked to tell people he was particularly interested in Evelyeen’s bicycle.
Many people also speak of Wilson Smith as one of the finest Christian men they had known. Freeman said Smith delivered a number of speeches over time on the hospital’s behalf and, without fail, he always gave credit for the richness of his life and his ability to help others to God.
“He was always quick to recount that it was by God’s grace that he was able to do what he was doing,” Freeman said.
I’ve heard friends say that when Wilson Smith goes to heaven he’ll probably stay busy, rearranging shelves or making signs. The family has made sure he makes the trip with chewing tobacco. They’ve put a pouch, courtesy of the Marsh boys, in his pants pocket.
I forgot to mention that Boxie, the turtle, had a distinctive white diamond on his back. One summer Boxie didn’t show up in the Smiths’ backyard, and they never saw him again.
Turtles can live a long time.
Stop if you see one in danger along the road and maybe even check for that diamond marking. It could be Boxie.
Or it might be Wilson Smith, directing another random act of kindness.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@