WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Family and friends gathered at the First Baptist Church on Fifth Street here Saturday (Oct. 27) to celebrate the long and love-filled life of Roy J. Smith, known for his exceptional leadership skills, pastoral passion and (as his pastor Emily Hull McGee noted) “a laughter that made your heart sing.”
Speaking of singing, Ed Beddingfield, who played guitar and sang with Roy at his bedside just two days before his death, invited those in attendance to sing along to a medley of “Precious Memories,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Softly and Tenderly” and “Angel Band.”
Roy’s daughter Ginger Smith Graves, on behalf of her two brothers as well, told of growing up “with so much laughter and joy.” She spoke of her dad’s deep commitments to her mother, Doris, for 53 years of marriage and to longtime family friend, Charlotte Cook Smith, who was his beloved wife for his last 14 years of life.
Professionally, Roy is best remembered as an effective and respected leader among North Carolina Baptists, including through divisive and challenging times. Yet it was never bitterness, but rather his warm spirit and contagious laughter that marked his life.
David Hughes, retired pastor of the Winston-Salem congregation, noted that most descriptions of effective leaders leave out having love for people. But he said of Roy: “Leaders don’t just lead people, they love them… Love was at the core of this person.”
Mike Queen, retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Wilmington, N.C., echoed that affirmation: “He just loved people and they loved him.”
Mike recalled asking Roy if he’d preached in every Baptist church in North Carolina. “No,” Roy responded, “but I’ve preached in more of them than anyone else.”
Roy was also invited to numerous church and community gatherings to bring along his guitar where he’d sing classic gospel and country tunes — with a preference for Johnny Cash. And Charlotte would carry the June Carter Cash parts.
Their late-in-life romance was the subject of a feature story I wrote in 2011 titled, “Red Carnations: A Love Story for the Ages.” After grieving the deaths of their spouses, Roy — who’d convinced a reluctant Charlotte to have lunch with him — brought two shades of carnations.
“The white carnations represent the past, and we can’t do anything about that,” he said to Charlotte. “But the red carnations represent joy and happiness, and that there can be a good future.”
Their romance had friends accusing them of acting like teenagers. And Roy’s proposal was in the form of an original song.
My visiting in the home of Charlotte — a wise advisor and Nurturing Faith director — and Roy was always a treat. We talked about whatever was happening in the news — especially the parts that impacted our shared passions for freedom, truth and justice.
We always had a grand time. However, I would kid Roy that he was mostly glad to see me because Charlotte would serve Lexington barbecue rather than make him eat “rabbit food.”
Being a fan of classic country music myself, the conversation often moved quickly to Cash, Haggard and Jones and some bluegrass favorites. We’d end up in the den with Roy holding a guitar.
Faithful supporters of our publishing mission, Charlotte and Roy have provided an annual gift that supports Nurturing Faith’s engagement with global Christians, including contributing writer Tony Cartledge’s participation in and writings about Baptist World Alliance.
Some services of remembrance just hit the mark more than others. This was such an occasion for a man who packed much good into a single life and left a legacy of love, leadership and laughter.
Singing “Softly and Tenderly” along with Ed Beddingfield and his guitar last Saturday in the ornate sanctuary in downtown Winston-Salem, the words “Coming home, coming home” rang true.