Teaching history with Suffolk’s First Citizen

Published 11:05 pm Friday, September 21, 2018

Karla Jean Smith is an active force for Suffolk’s beloved waterways and history. She recently earned another distinction as the First Citizen of Suffolk for 2018, and no one was more surprised than Smith herself.

“I’m still stunned,” she said. She hadn’t known she was nominated. She said she was so shocked when she learned of the recognition that she recommended that they “take the second person” instead.

“She said, ‘There are no more people. You’re the one they selected,’” said Smith, recounting her conversation with the Rotary Club member who informed her of the award.

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Since 1956, the award has been given each year — except for a hiatus from 1999-2002 — to an outstanding individual who best exemplifies the spirit of citizenship by demonstrating significant leadership combined with talents and efforts to make Suffolk a better place to live.

The award was started by the Cosmopolitan Club and 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 in 2010.

Smith was adamant that she didn’t fit the mold made by previous recipients. Last year’s First Citizen was local businessman John Harrell, and the expansive list goes on to include business figures like car dealership owner Lydia Duke and real estate agent Billy Chorey Sr.

There was also Dr. R. Leroy Howell, Sen. Fred Quayle, Dr. Douglas Naismith and Delegate Chris Jones.

“I just didn’t feel like I fit the mold, but that’s OK. Maybe they needed to break the mold,” she said, followed by a chuckle. “I guess they did break the mold.”

Smith isn’t a doctor, lawyer or former mayor, but she’s instead amassed a wonderful reputation through a ceaseless drive to teach others and to safeguard Suffolk’s history and natural splendors.

She’s a founding member of Suffolk River Heritage and the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, and when the National Park Service decided to undertake its first designated water trail map with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, she led the efforts to make sure that Suffolk’s part in the story would be told.

The trail was authorized by Congress in 2006 and launched nationwide in 2007 for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding. These water routes mark the nearly 3,000 miles that Smith and his crew mapped in the Chesapeake Bay between 1607 and 1609, plus the tributaries in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

The Nansemond River became part of that trail in 2014, and as a Girl Scout leader, Smith got her Scouts involved to help raise awareness. Kiosks at Bennett’s Creek, Constant’s Wharf Park and Marina and Sleepy Hole Park highlight John Smith’s travels through the region more than 400 years ago.

“John Smith came and interacted with the (Nansemond Indian Tribe),” Karla Smith said. “It was recorded in those first writings. All of his interactions with communities up and down on the Chesapeake Bay.”

Suffolk needed to be part of the trail project not only to complete the history of Smith’s journey but also to create more opportunities to appreciate the city’s place in the Chesapeake Bay chronicles.

“It was important to me, not just to complete that history, but also create that appreciation for the historical significance in this part of the bay,” Smith said.

Smith is first and foremost a history teacher. She may have retired after 40 years in education, but she’s still the chair of NRPA’s environmental education committee. She crafts detailed maps of the local area, guides students on field trips into Suffolk’s waterways and gives lectures often.

“The best way to get the word out is through education, and the more people you involve in education, the more it will stick,” Smith said.

That’s why she’s frequently several books deep in historical research for yet another installment in the Suffolk River Heritage’s bibliography.

She was a researcher and author for 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 recently published “Screwpiles: The Forgotten Lighthouses,” documenting the history of local lighthouses, particularly the Nansemond River Lighthouse that was located at the mouth of the Nansemond from 1878 to 1935.

Smith worked with her co-author Larry Saint and fellow Heritage members John Sheally II and Phyllis Speidell to uncover even more information than they bargained for, then compiled those into a 200-plus-page hardcover book with gorgeous photography and illustrations and numerous interviews with local residents.

Between Suffolk River Heritage and NRPA, Smith has found an avenue for reaching out to the people of Suffolk, especially the children.

“I believe in what we’re doing in both organizations. We’re sharing history and we’re creating awareness of the environment. Both adults with our books and children with our environmental programs,” she said.

The NRPA has held classes and field trips for roughly 1,000 Suffolk seventh-graders each year for the last several years and works with students in the King’s Fork High School Ecology Club for oyster sanctuaries and other waterway projects.

“We’re hanging on to some of those students to continue passing on that awareness of the environment and to pass on those skills,” Smith said.

But Smith is loath to take the credit for herself. She attributes her successes to friends and colleagues in Girl Scouts, teaching and throughout the city. When she’s collecting critters for a classroom lesson, she can just go to Johnson and Sons Seafood for all the help she needs, she said.

“I couldn’t do any of this without the support of the community,” she said.

That’s part of her drive when it came to sharing the story of Suffolk, as told by the people themselves.

“I think you understand where you live better if you know what was going on in history,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not, but to me it’s a good story, and it helps you understand your city, your county and your country better if you know the story from the beginning.

“It helps you understand where you are. I call that a sense of place.”

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