Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mac Smith, lawmaker, dies at 92

J. McNeill Smith, one of the most remarkable lawyers and legislators the state has produced, died Saturday in Greensboro at age 92.  He defended unpopular people, helped desegregate Greensboro in the 1960s when the sit-in movement began to change the South, helped students challenging the state's unconstitutional speaker ban on college campuses and had more fun legislating than just about anyone I ever covered in four decades of writing about N.C. politics.

You can read his obit here.

Smith was a state senator from Greensboro in the 1970s when he ran for the right to challenge then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in the 1978 election, but failed to survive a hotly contested primary.   I had grown up in Greensboro, attended the same downtown church (West Market Street Methodist) and knew his family from the early 1950s, but got to know him better in that 1978 campaign. I learned among other things that Smith had an enormous appetite.  We went to lunch one day so I could interview him about the campaign. He ate like a starving horse as I asked questions and tried to keep up with his answers. Trouble was, he asked me more questions than I asked him, and I fell behind on the barbecue.  At one point he reached for my banana pudding as he asked, "You're not going to eat this are you?"  I don't thing he gave me the chance.

He was more than just a good lawyer. He had a sharp wit, seemed to be interested in everything and was a lively conversationalist. It often seemed to me he was thinking about three sentences ahead of what he was saying.

In the 1970s he stayed with a relative who lived near the legislature, and Mac rode his bicycle back and forth to the Senate each day when the honorables were in session.  He collected old typewriters -- at one point had a garage full of them, he told me -- and when one of his daughters was about to be married, he dubbed the preparations just as expensive and almost as complicated as Operation Overlord in World War II, in which he served in North Africa and Asia.

Once at a dance in Greensboro he asked my mother-in-law, Fran Strickland, to dance. "But Mac," she said, "the music isn't playing right now."  Mac glanced around, saw that she was right and then smiled: "Evidently you are right, but can I get credit for asking?"


Anonymous said...

I thought it was obligatory when writing about Mac Smith to mention that he rode a bike to work rain or shine.

Doug Copeland said...


I laughed and laughed at your stories 'cause I know how true they all are. Especially his eating from others plates. We miss him on many levels.

In 1974 the ballot in Guilford County was misprinted spelling his name McNeil. He did not flinch. he simply printed all his campaign literature with the same spelling.

David P. McKnight said...

It was quite a thrill and a learning experience as well to be a fellow candidate in the 1978 Democratic U.S. primary field with a person of the knowledge and vision of McNeill Smith.

David P. McKnight