Original Navy Seabee: ‘It’s been a wonderful life’
Jerry Smith of Durham said that in some dictionaries, his first name means “constructed in haste of poor material.”
That’s a laugh.
Anyone who knows Smith, a former U.S. Navy Seabee who turned 100 recently, would say he’s built of rock-solid ingredients.
The Navy honored Smith last week at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh for his service during World War II as one of the original Seabees. Smith is a “plank owner” in the First Naval Construction Battalion (members are called Seabees) which was commissioned on March 15, 1942. A Navy plank owner was a crew member when the ship or command was placed in commission.
Smith’s battalion is credited with completing construction projects in the Pacific during the war, risking their lives to build hospitals and airfields.
Smith joined the Navy in 1942 at age 29, serving until the war ended in 1945. That’s when he embarked on a series of careers that kept him busy until he retired five years ago at 95.
After the war, Smith returned to his hometown of Kinston in Lenoir County, where he worked at a building supply business and was part-owner of a lumber company.
Smith moved to Durham in 1961, and began working at Home Building Supply, owned by Bill Burns, who later became president of Central Carolina Bank. He also worked at West Durham Lumber Co.
Later on, Smith got a job at a Durham mortuary, transporting corpses to funeral homes across the Southeast in his 70s, 80s and 90s. He kept that job for 30 years.
“I loved it,” Smith said. “You just meet so many people when you go to different funeral homes. The funeral homes knew I was coming and they had to unload [the body]. They would say: ‘Well, the old man is coming. Pick up the body and let him go [home].”
Smith retired from transporting corpses at age 95, and kept driving his own car until he was 98, when he turned over the keys to his wife.
When he retired, Smith had paid into the Social Security system for 73 years.
“Social Security says I’m the only person they know who did that,” he said.
Will he get all his money back?
“I’m going to try!” he vowed.
Smith said he’s been blessed with good health, and went from birth to age 95 without being sick. He’s had three illnesses in the past five yeas, including Lyme disease from a tick bite and a bout of flu that his doctor said was from an influenza strain that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide during the flu pandemic of 1918-1920.
Smith was 6 during that pandemic, and vividly remembers seeing bodies covered in white sheets in front of the Lenoir County Courthouse.
He and his grandfather traveled one day by mule-drawn buggy to the courthouse and saw what they called “white logs” lying in the courthouse yard, one next to the other.
“I said: ‘Pa, what in the world is that?’ ” Smith said. “And he said: ‘Son, they’re dying so fast that there aren’t enough people to dig graves and bury them. So they roll them in white sheets, put their names on them and where they want to be buried, and put them on the courthouse lawn.’ ”
Smith said they rode past a schoolhouse and saw the same thing.
“Once the graves were dug, they were buried,” he said.
Smith said his grandfather was never sick, and credited his jug of whiskey mixed with honey that he kept under his bed.
Betty Smith, Jerry’s wife of 46 years, calls her husband “one in a million.”
“He amazes me a lot of the time,” she said. “Sometimes, I feel like I can hardly put one foot in front of the other. But after I’m around him a little while, I perk up.”
The couple went dancing Wednesday night at the Moose Lodge in Wilson, and enjoyed the culmination of a series of parties celebrating Smith’s 100th birthday.
Smith isn’t sure why he’s lived so long, particularly since he once smoked three packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day. He quit in 1964, but never thought he’d make it this long.
He tries to do things in moderation, but doesn’t deprive himself of good food. He no longer drinks coffee or tea, “but I give Dr Pepper a fit.”
“If I can get it, I eat anything I want to,” Smith said. “It’s never hurt me.”
Smith weighed 120 pounds when he joined the Navy, and later gained 65 pounds. He’s down to 158 now, and said he feels great.
“I feel some kind of good,” Smith said with a laugh. “I never thought I’d make it this long, but the Lord has kept me good. It’s been a wonderful life.”