William Smith of Asheville is a kind and humble man with a dear heart who personifies the word faithfulness.
That’s the way Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Director Lynn Cox describes the 88-year-old recipient of the Conservancy’s 1998 Murray Volunteer Service Award, presented this June at the group’s annual meeting in Crossnore, N.C.
Smith had never laid eyes on Roan Mountain in 1982, when his sister, who knew he liked the mountains, sent him a clipping about the Conservancy’s protection efforts there. A couple of years earlier, he’d retired to Asheville, following a 30-year Civil Service career with the U.S. Navy in Portsmouth, Va.
That article sparked Smith’s curiosity, and he contacted the Conservancy. A few days later, he received a telephone call from the late Stan Murray, SAHC’s first director, who invited him to join the organization and get involved as a volunteer.
Get involved Smith did. For several years, he was part of a volunteer crew that cut hawthorns invading the bald on Yellow Mountain. When the SAHC office relocated to Asheville from Kingsport, Tenn., Smith helped with the move. Since then, he’s made generous financial contributions to the group and served on its board of directors (from 1985-91).
The centerpiece of SAHC’s annual meeting each summer is a day of guided hikes on Roan Mountain, which gives members a chance to revisit the mountain that the conservancy was organized to protect. (In recent years, SAHC has expanded its mission to include preservation efforts in other parts of the Southern Appalachians.)
Fibrosis has reduced Smith’s lung capacity to 30-40 percent of what it once was — he wears a portable oxygen canister on his hip — but that didn’t deter him from hiking, although he does it at a slower pace than most.
Since joining SAHC, he’s hiked all over the Highlands of Roan — to Roan High Knob at one end, and Big Hump at the other. But Smith discovered the joys of foot travel more than 70 years ago, and as he puts it, did most of his “clomping around in the mountains” closer to Asheville.
A resident of Mocksville until his mother died when he was 14, Smith lived with his sister for a year before coming to western North Carolina to attend “the old Asheville Farm School” (now Warren Wilson College).
He subsequently studied electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, saw active duty with the Navy in World War II, and worked for Carolina Power and Light before embarking on his Civil Service career.
“I’d never been to the mountains before I was sent to the Farm School — had hardly been out of my back yard,” Smith recalls.
Rather than go home for the summer, Smith stayed on at the school to work. In keeping with the school’s hiking tradition, he and friends set off for his first mountain adventure, hiking to Lane’s Pinnacle, then on to a spot near what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Craggy Gardens Visitor Center.
There they “hung around in the mountains for two or three days,” sleeping under an overhanging rock in blankets they’d packed in, and keeping their pack mules, which they pastured in Craggy Flats, out of the area’s only water source by covering the spot with brush.
Smith’s second hiking trip came the following year, in the spring of 1926, when he and companions followed the toll road to Mt. Mitchell, camped for the night, then hiked on to the Craggies, down into Bull Creek Valley and back to the school.
On the way up, they detoured to the top of Blue Ridge Pinnacle, whose heath-bald summit afforded them a sweeping view of the Black Mountains.
“It was my first view of Mt. Mitchell,” Smith remembers. “The country was a lot more open then than it is today. I took a picture from the Pinnacle, with an old camera I’d been given. I still have that negative.”
Smith drives past those scenes of his youth on his way to the SAHC meeting each June. He follows the Blue Ridge Parkway, which hadn’t been built when he first visited the high mountains.
“The views from the Parkway are beautiful,” Smith says, “but not so arresting as those you reach on foot.” That may explain why he chose to hike this summer to the top of Round Bald on Roan, to look across a sea of mountains he’s already seen dozens of times.
“You get a special kind of satisfaction,” he says, “from making it on your own.”