Wife’s lifetime service to strangers motivates husband to give back
By Rhonda Morin
Jerry and Louvenia “Lou” Smith were the adventurous types. Retired by their late 50s, they spent two decades sailing the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway. Then about five years ago, one of their sons got a job in the Northwest and the couple started driving the 2,800 miles each way to visit their grandsons.
Jerry said there really wasn’t a plan when they put up a for sale sign. The couple simply wanted to test the housing market in Greensboro, N.C.
The house sold in a week. They had 30 days to move. After 71 years of living in North Carolina, they packed their Toyota Sienna minivan on a hot July afternoon in 2014, and drove to Vancouver, Wash.
Lou would be dead within eight months. Cancer.
High school sweethearts, Jerry and Lou had been together since they were 18. They married on a spring day in 1961. He went to night school to get his bachelor’s degree. Lou went to school after Jerry finished, while caring for their two children. She studied nursing, was a National Honor Society student and passed her state boards with flying colors.
Lou worked in the field for two decades, specializing in occupational nursing.
“She loved helping people and she loved being a nurse,” said her husband of 54 years. “You have to have the heart to be a nurse. You have to want to help others.”
Her tenderness and commitment to relieving the suffering of strangers always struck a chord with Jerry. He reflected on this upon her death, which led him to call Clark College Foundation to find out how he could help aspiring nurses, while honoring his wife’s memory.
The good times
While Lou was enjoying her work, Jerry’s career was taking off. He worked in data processing and traveled the world—Italy, Australia, Germany and South Africa—putting in computer systems for the fuel dispensary services company Gilbarco, now doing business as Gilbarco Veeder-Root. An opportunity arose to do a rotation in the manufacturing section of the business. He’d work directly with workers on the shop floor. Turns out, this was Jerry’s niche and he never returned to installing computer systems.
He was in charge of implementing what is today known as LEAN manufacturing—eliminating waste in a system. He toured other companies to observe their processes, returning to Gilbarco bursting with new ideas. Workers were unconvinced that they could cut the time it took to change dies on a 100-ton steel press. But they did cut the time—in half. Then they reduced it even further, eventually achieving a three-minute die exchange instead of a 45 minute one.
Gilbarco got noticed. Jerry submitted the company’s success implementing LEAN manufacturing to an industry publication. To his delight, Gilbarco was chosen as one of the industry’s best plants in 1994, and capitalized on the achievement for the next five years. Business thrived.
“Gilbarco brought in $20 million in new business the first year,” said Jerry.
Promotions followed and for the next 17 years, Jerry was in his element.
“I loved working with front-line employees,” he said.
Try men’s souls
Lou had her share of health concerns in her lifetime. She had a heart condition which required a pacemaker. While walking in her neighborhood one day, the 68-year-old had a heart attack and would have died on the sidewalk if it hadn’t been for quick responses from neighbors and life-saving measures administered by the paramedics.
Jerry and Lou went to a hero ceremony after she recovered and hugged the 35-year-old paramedic. “Thank you for saving my wife,” he remembers saying. He still tears up.
The sketchpad of Jerry’s mind noted how strangers came to his family’s aid at a life-changing moment.
As he struggled with grief following his wife’s death from cancer five years later, he was particularly gripped by the reality of his new surroundings. Jerry was thousands of miles away from home and friends, with only the familiar faces of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren to call upon for comfort.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he said, quoting 18th century political activist and author Thomas Paine.
Some of the respite he sought was found by giving to others. Jerry reached out to Clark College Foundation and set up three scholarships for students studying nursing with the intent to be registered nurses.
Tia Clary, 32, is one of those recipients. She’s a single parent who worked part-time at Safeway while she attended Clark. She has always had an interest in the medical field, but caring for her grandfather before his death sealed her decision. She graduated with her nursing degree in June.
“I was born and raised here. I want to live a life of service to this community,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be able to care for people when they are at their most vulnerable.”
“I met Jerry and his daughter-in-law at the (Clark College Foundation) Scholarship Reception last year. I think because of my story, we felt a connection to each other,” said Clary.
She learned about Lou’s compassion for serving others and her love for nursing was fortified.
“Learning about (Lou) and her career makes me want to do my best and be an inspiration for others,” said Clary.
The Louvenia “Lou” Hart Smith BSRN, COHN Memorial Scholarship relieved some of the financial burdens for Clary and allowed her to focus on her studies. She’ll graduate with a $17,000 student debt, but Clary feels it is less than it would be without the scholarship.
“It’s a healthy debt, but it’s worth it. I’ll be making a lot more money soon and I’ll be able to pay it off,” she said.
Jerry went to Clary’s pinning ceremony, a welcoming of newly graduated nurses into the profession. He’ll also pay for her state board exams.
Following the scholarship recipients’ progress keeps him aware of any barriers that pop up during their education. He wants to alleviate financial burdens that could derail their accomplishments.
“Some people can throw money at a problem and it makes them feel good. But this is personal for me.”
“I like to know why they need the help. It’s not just a curiosity. I don’t want any stumbling blocks along the way. I want them to succeed,” he said.
Though he sold the sailboat years ago, Jerry often reflects on the good fortune he and Lou had during their more than half-century of marriage. They sailed calm waters on warm, lazy afternoons and learned how to navigate the stormy channels in their lives. Today, he honors his wife’s kindheartedness and all those who helped them along their voyage with the gift of education. It’s an adventure that lasts a lifetime.
Scholarship eases financial pressures
Tia Clary is a single mom who put herself through a rigorous nursing program at Clark. She knew early on that she wanted to work in the medical field, but it was caring for her sick grandfather that steered her into going back to school to achieve her goal.
The demands on her time are great: she works part-time to obtain health care insurance, is the primary caretaker of her son and attended Clark full time until she graduated in June. Receiving a scholarship relieved some of the financial burden while she was in college and left an impression on her.
“I would love to be a donor in the future, knowing how giving benefits students,” she said.
Want to start a scholarship to help students like Tia? Visit clarkcollegefoundation.org or contact Shirley Schwartz at 360.992.2379.