Chattanoogan: Joe Smith - Ordinary Name For An Extraordinary Person

Sunday, September 9, 2018
Joe Smith was sworn in to a seat on the School Board as his wife and daughter looked on
Joe Smith was sworn in to a seat on the School Board as his wife and daughter looked on

He's got as common a name as you can find - Joe Smith - but his life has been anything but run of the mill.

The District 3 School Board member had a long rocky start to his life, but he has been a champion for many similarly troubled kids for many years now.

"I was born in Hamilton County, but not this Hamilton County," Joe notes. He and his sister were born in Hamilton County, Ohio - Cincinnati - to an alcoholic couple.

He says, "When I was two weeks old and my sister was two years old, my parents decided to give us up. They didn't want us."

In a strange turn of events, the two abandoned little ones wound up down south in Hamilton County, Tn. Joe says, "We were adopted by a kind Chattanooga couple named Bill and Minnie Lee Smith. And we were very fortunate that we got to stay together."

He remembers that their new parents made no secret that they were adopted. "But they would tell us, "You're really special. We could have picked any other kids in the world."

Joe recalls that when he was 14 and his sister was 16 that their new father asked them if they wanted to meet their real father. They were both eager to do so. He said they were taken to a run-down, cold house in East Lake and introduced to a gnarled, unpleasant man. Joe says, "He tried to have a relationship with us, but he would say he was coming to one of our school events or ball games, then he wouldn't show."

Then in 1970, when Joe was walking off the football field after a game at Red Bank High School, his sister came running on the field. She was hollering, "I found her. I found our real mother." He notes, "That was really hard to do back then without the Internet."

He said they asked their adopted parents if they could go visit their mother in Cleveland, Ohio. The Smiths agreed to let them take their 1953 Buick ("that was built like a tank") as long as they would call each hour to let them know that they were okay.

They jumped in the car and made the long trip to Cleveland - calling each hour, then had a hard time (without modern GPS) finding the right residence. Eventually they came to a run-down house and a woman came to the door dressed only in a sheet. He said, "It was a house of prostitution. She didn't have much to say to us so we left after about five minutes and drove straight back to Chattanooga. I bet we didn't say two words going home. We cried the whole way back."

Joe went on to UT Knoxville, and that is where he had his first encounter with cocaine, which was to consume his life for many years. 

He returned to Chattanooga and married the little sister of his best friend, and they had two children. He started a successful insurance business. But he said an increasing dependence on cocaine was wrecking his marriage and business. "I lost everything."

Joe said he got to the point that his life was so miserable that he couldn't go on. He said he decided "I would go to Chickamauga Dam and blow my brains out." He loaded a pistol and began driving towards the dam. Then he ran out of gas. He notes, "I couldn't even kill myself."

A man driving by noticed his plight and offered to help. He said the man noted that he was troubled and asked him what was wrong. Joe said he put the man off at first, "then I poured my heart out to him."

He said the man told him he knew who he should talk to. He then drove him to Soddy Daisy and introduced him to Dr. Charles Clay, who had been in the Marine Corps. He said Dr. Clay "said all the right things to me."

Joe didn't catch the name of the man who  gave him the ride, but he considers him "an angel - just like my wife who stuck with me during the miserable years."

Joe then voluntarily went into rehab for six months. Afterward, he said he was given an opportunity by Crossroads director Chris Vass to work third shift "walking the halls." He said, "I was really just a security officer."

But he said he began to take such an interest in the troubled youngsters at the center that when his shift ended "I would clock out, but I would stay around." He got moved to second shift where he could work more directly with the problem youth. He notes, "I have been working with kids ever since." 

He was employed at a rehab hospital in Knoxville for a few years, then returned to Chattanooga, where he began the Y-CAP program for the YMCA in 1998. The program has been a lifesaver for a host of kids who face many of the same problems he did.

His son, Andy, got interested in boxing for a short time, and Joe quickly picked up "that this was a way I could reach some street-tough kids like nothing else." Boxing became a keystone of the successful Chattanooga Y-CAP program. Joe Smith developed many champions, and he became a prominent figure on the national and international boxing scene. He was the team manager for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team at the Beijing Olympics. He is getting ready to bring the U.S. and Germany boxing teams for a Chattanooga exhibition.

In the meantime, he and his wife began taking in kids who had nowhere else to go - just like Bill and Minnie Lee Smith did years ago. They have fostered 19 different children, including Roger who is now a manager of Y-CAP that is now led by Andy Smith, Joe's son.

Joe noted that after he retired from the Y that he was urged to run for the County Commission. He lost that race, but then the seat on the School Board opened up. He said, "Looking back, it was all in God's plan."

He said his work on the School Board "is perfect for me. It's right where I need to be - helping kids."

 


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