Tom Smith named Humanitarian of Year

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Admit it. You used to think Tom Smith bore a striking resemblance to Eb on the television show “Green Acres.”
Well, Smith Acres was the place to be Friday night at the often hilarious roast/toast of Smith as the Community Care Clinic’s 2012 Humanitarian of the Year.
Smith graciously absorbed the many digs at his past safari hunting trips, efforts at farming in western Rowan County and all those homespun commercials he used to do for Food Lion, the Salisbury-based grocery chain he headed for 20 years.
But Smith dished it back, too. By the end of the evening, he asked everyone in the Hedrick Little Theater audience at Catawba College to sign the list that was going around.
“I’m going to get back at you,” he promised.
The annual charity event, the Community Care Clinic’s biggest fundraiser, used a late-night talk show theme with Kent Bernhardt as host. In typical Johnny Carson fashion, Bernhardt had to reflect on the day’s high temperatures and answer the question: “How hot was it?”
“It was so hot today Tom’s money was sticking together,” Bernhardt said.
At one point in the show — an audience participation segment — Bernhardt went into the crowd offering a Food Lion canned ham to someone who could guess Smith’s age. (He’s 71.)
Bernhardt also ran down a David Letterman-type Top 10 list of “Little Known Facts about Tom Smith.”
No. 7, for example, noted that Smith was author of the book, “How to Raise Elk in Rowan County,” a reference to the elk that have roamed on his farm. No. 4 was the revelation that his favorite marksman/hunter is Sarah Palin.
But No. 1 really hit below the belt: the little known fact that ABC PrimeTime Live’s Diane Sawyer was his favorite reporter. The reference goes back, of course, to the show’s investigation in the early 1990s about Food Lion’s food handling practices — a report that the company vigorously challenged, eventually in court.
Safari Joe (Robert Van Geons) appeared as a talk-show guest to lampoon many of Smith’s African hunting adventures.
Johnny Moore, a neighboring farmer and friend, spoke about receiving numerous calls from Smith during the planting seasons on how to exactly calibrate his drill for seeding wheat and soybeans.
During these times, Moore said, he often looks down at his cellphone as it rings once again and says to himself, “Dang, that’s Tom Smith.”
Despite the hard time Smith was receiving Friday night, Moore reported that Smith, the gentleman farmer, actually had enjoyed an excellent season with his wheat — obtaining a yield of up to 70 bushels an acre.
Smith was quick to point out that he farms 60 acres to Moore’s 2,500. “There is a slight difference,” Smith said.
One of Smith’s best friends, Charles Taylor, reminisced about their many trips together, including one to New Mexico, where they met a cowboy author who said he had found the cure for cancer from a product he ordered from Gastonia.
It’s a long story.
“Our goal is to hit every state and to see if we can’t clean them up,” Taylor said. He also had an overall observation about his friend: “Tom’s pretty damn boring.”
Margaret Kluttz, former Salisbury mayor and once a Food Lion board member, gave Smith a hard time for giving his wife, Martha, bad presents. As generous as Smith has been to the community, she said, he continues to give Martha old irons as gifts.
Bernhardt shared photos on the theater’s big screen of all the antique irons Martha Smith has. (She’s a collector.)
Bernhardt noted that Smith, in his role as Food Lion’s top executive, had been photographed with many notable politicians, such as the late N.C. Agricultural Commissioner Jim Graham, former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and former President George W. Bush, who “thought he played Eb on ‘Green Acres.’ ”
While the evening took plenty of jabs at Smith, it also reflected on the generosity he and Martha, his wife of 24 years, have shown, from Historic Salisbury Foundation and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina to Catawba College, Piedmont Players and Smith’s work through the Salisbury Community Foundation.
“He’s truly a treasure for this community,” F&M Bank’s Steve Fisher said. “…When Tom talks, he has something to say.”
Smith has given millions to local causes through the years, but he said he has received so much from this community throughout his life that he doesn’t feel like he’s even started giving back.
As usual, the evening’s roast was a total surprise to Smith, who traveled to the dinner-show thinking it was aimed at Taylor.
The Community Care Clinic was founded in 1995, and it provides basic health, dental and pharmacy services free of charge to qualifying low-income patients. Services provided are limited to Rowan County residents who have no private medical insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, and income restrictions must fall within 200 percent of federal guidelines for poverty, set annually by the government.
For 2012, this figure is $22,000 for an individual and $46,000 for a family of four.
Many physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and others in the medical community volunteer time to the clinic at no cost.
Krista Woolly, executive director of the clinic, said $3.2 million in services were provided last year within an operating budget of just more than $600,000. The number of people seen by the clinic has increased dramatically.
In 2007, before the economy soured, the clinic had 400 visits. In 2011, the number had grown to 2,300 doctor visits, 760 dental and 20,500 prescriptions filled.
For the first time Friday night, the clinic honored a Volunteer of the Year, naming Mike Fuller of Innes Street Drug as the recipient. The award will be named for Fuller from now on.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.