2018’s Suffolk First Citizen named

Published 11:29 pm Thursday, August 16, 2018

Karla Jean Smith has been named the First Citizen of Suffolk for 2018.

Smith said she was “overwhelmed and stunned” by the recognition, which is given by local Rotary Clubs, adding she didn’t even know she was nominated.

“I was taken by surprise,” she said by phone on Thursday. “There are so many people that could be instead of me, but I really don’t know what to say except I’m still stunned. Suffolk is a fun place to live and there’s a lot going on, and I’m kind of honored to be nominated and to get it.”

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Smith is a founding member of Suffolk River Heritage and the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance. She led the effort to have Suffolk, the Nansemond River and Bennett’s Creek included in the National Park Service’s Captain John Smith National Colonial Historic Water Trail.

Smith is also a researcher and author, having co-authored the books “The River Binds Us,” “Peninsula in Passage” and “Truckin’ on the Western Branch,” which document the important local history of the people and waterways of Suffolk and nearby communities. She also co-authored the newly published book “Screwpiles: The Forgotten Lighthouses,” documenting the history of local lighthouses, especially the Nansemond River Lighthouse that was located at the mouth of the Nansemond from 1878 to 1935.

She also chairs NRPA’s environmental education committee, leading Suffolk students on educational field trips on local waterways.

Smith has also left a legacy as an educator of 40 years in Chesapeake, a 30-year leader of Girl Scouts and one of the founders of the annual July 4 raft race on Chuckatuck Creek, which has become a beloved tradition.

Smith deflected credit for her accomplishments on Thursday.

“You can’t be in this position if you don’t have a lot of people who help you do what you do,” she said. “To be in my position is so dependent on all of the people that I work with who do stuff with me to make the difference that we do.”

Smith will be honored by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs at a reception at 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

The award, given each year since 1956, except for a hiatus from 1999-2002, goes to an outstanding individual who best exemplifies the spirit of citizenship and who has shown significant leadership through his or her time, talents and efforts in order to make Suffolk a better place to live. The award was started by the Cosmopolitan Club but ended in 1999 when the club disbanded. The Suffolk Rotary Club took up the mantle in 2003, and the North Suffolk Rotary Club joined in the recognition several years ago.

Last year’s recipient was local businessman John Harrell. Other prior recipients have included car dealership owner Lydia Duke; real estate agent Billy Chorey Sr.; the late Robert W. “Bobby” Harrell Jr.; Dr. R. Leroy Howell; M. Caroline Martin; Sen. Fred Quayle; Dr. Doug Naismith; Delegate Chris Jones; Betsy Brothers, who was active in renovating Suffolk High School to become the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts; community activist W. Ross Boone; attorney Whitney Saunders; longtime City Councilman Curtis Milteer; historian Sue Woodward; former Mayor E. Dana Dickens; businessman George Birdsong, longtime General Assembly member Sam Glasscock; dentist Dr. George Barnett; former Mayor Andy Damiani; and former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr.