Karla Smith becomes First Citizen

Published 10:25 pm Wednesday, September 26, 2018

More than 200 people packed into the Suffolk Center of Cultural Arts auditorium Tuesday evening to celebrate Karla Jean Smith, the First Citizen of Suffolk for 2018. Former First Citizens, Rotarians and other guests clapped and cheered as the woman of the hour was put in the spotlight.

Since 1956, the prestigious award has been given each year — except for a hiatus from 1999-2002 — to an outstanding individual who best exemplifies citizenship through a combination of leadership, talent 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.

Email newsletter signup

It was Smith’s longtime colleague Larry Saint who nominated her. The news that she was picked was a welcome surprise for Saint and an even bigger one for humble Smith, who was quick to recommend someone else be chosen instead.

But there was no one that could overtake Smith’s contributions as an active force for Suffolk’s beloved waterways and history.

“Her love for her community, for her organizations (and) for the kids she continues to teach is clear,” Saint told the evening audience. “Karla Smith is a prime example of one who makes a difference in her community.”

The Rotarians played a video that highlighted Smith as a Suffolk neighbor on the water. The video showed her riding a boat down Chuckatuck Creek with Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” playing and Jack the dog in tow.

It’s the same boat on which she’s taken numerous young students for field trips into Suffolk’s scenic waterways.

“Karla is a grassroots kind of gal,” Jackie Cherry said in the video. “She’s one of those that you expect to be there with her sleeves rolled up, really digging into what it takes to make it happen.

“If you look around Suffolk, you can kind of see her handprint throughout the community.”

Smith’s favorite saying for any project is “we can do this,” and she’s done that in more ways than one over the years.

She’s a founding member of Suffolk River Heritage and the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance. When the National Park Service decided to tackle its first designated water trail map with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, she led the way to ensure that Suffolk would be part of that story.

“Suffolk is on the map — literally — because of Karla,” Saint said in the video.

She’s also one of the founders of the beloved raft race that happens annually at Chuckatuck Creek on July 4. John Wass recalled in the video those early raft-racing years when staying afloat was an achievement all its own.

“We had some really pretty bad rafts. We were the last men putting them together, sometimes that morning,” Wass said. “We were having a great time out there, and all the dogs ran to one side. Well, guess what? We went over.”

It’s one of the many stories among the local families that go back generations, stories that Smith herself helped preserve in print.

She was a researcher and co-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 compile research and personal interviews with numerous local residents into a 200-plus-page hardcover book with gorgeous photography and illustrations.

“Imagine if she had not led the creation of that book,” Saint said. “Those important stories would have been lost forever. All of those people that were featured in the books that Karla co-authored now have treasured accounts that they can pass along to their children.”

Smith is a teacher above all else with 40 years of classroom experience that has continued outside of the classroom, as well.

She’s still the chair of NRPA’s environmental education committee, still crafts detailed maps of the local area and still guides students on field trips into Suffolk’s waterways.

“I probably would have been a better student had I been in her class,” Sue Woodward said in the video. “It seems to me that she goes beyond what you would expect.”

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.

Smith’s fingerprints are all over these educational experiences, and she can still feel the magic of success in the excitement and piqued curiosities of her students.

“I’ve had so many moments like that that it makes me not want to stop,” Smith said. “It makes me not want to stop educating with the oyster projects, or with any of the things that we’re doing with the NRPA.

“There is an excitement when you get those moments, and if you are a teacher you have them very frequently. If you’ve taught a long time you have them more frequently.

“What an excitement. What a boost. It makes the hairs stand up on your arm.”

At the podium, Smith thanked her husband, Jimmy, her children and the rest of her family. She also thanked the family she found in the Girl Scouts, the NRPA, Suffolk River Heritage and other organizations that she’s shaped and have shaped her in return.

She has many friends and family that have lifted her up to where she stood on Tuesday, she said.

“I’m very honored to be chosen, but I think the thing is that I carry all these people in the room that have helped me. They help me do my stuff,” Smith said.