Mary Ellis Smith was packing for a family vacation to the beaches of South Carolina last June when her husband, Bill, came into the bedroom.
“He had the mail in his hand, and he was shaking this letter and saying, ‘I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe this,’” Mary Ellis recalls. “I thought it was a bill. Then he handed it to me to read, and I saw that it was a letter from Dr. Lee Royce letting Bill know that he’d been chosen as Mississippi College’s Alumnus of the Year.
“It meant the world to Bill, but I think it was an even prouder moment for me,” Mary Ellis Smith continues. “I knew that other people had seen the kind of person Bill was. I had always known I could depend on him, and it was wonderful to have other people recognize that about him, too.”
Just one week after reading that letter, Rev. William “Bill” Smith was called Home, passing away of an apparent heart attack while swimming in the warm waters off the South Carolina coast.
In recognition of his service to MC and his unwavering commitment to his family and his faith, Mississippi College is proud to honor the late Rev. William Smith III as the Alumnus of the Year.
Bill Smith met Mary Ellis Perkins when both were students at Mississippi College in the 1950s. Bill spotted Mary Ellis at a fair promoting organizations on campus and was immediately enchanted; he followed Mary Ellis’ long blond ponytail through the crowded fair and asked her out on a date. For the rest of their time at MC, Bill and Mary Ellis were inseparable, enjoying afternoons at the Jackson Zoo and concerts and ballgames together. Bill and Mary Ellis graduated from MC and were married in 1959. The two embarked together on a life spent in service, Bill as a Baptist preacher and Mary Ellis as a pastor’s wife and teacher.
“For me, the high points of our working life were always when Bill was elected to a place of service,” Mary Ellis Smith says. “The way that he approached those roles with all his heart made me so proud. I saw my role as a support position, and I was so pleased to be in that role.”
A graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Rev. Smith served as pastor at churches in Yalobusha, Clay, Lee, and Madison counties, Mississippi, then served for 20 years as Lee County Baptist Associational director of missions. While a pastor, Rev. Smith also served as a member of the executive committee of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, a family life consultant for the church training department, and a trustee and chairman of the board for Mississippi Baptist Seminary.
As director of missions, Rev. Smith began a multi-family housing mission, clothing closet, and food bank in Tupelo, Mississippi. He started a monthly worship service for vendors at the Tupelo Flea Market, and every summer he assembled and led a construction crew to assist a church in a building project in conjunction with the North American Mission Board.
Following his retirement, he continued to preach at the monthly flea market vendor services, worked with the benevolence program at Calvary Baptist Church, and delivered free books to nursing homes as part of the Ebenezer Foundation. Rev. Smith also continued to serve in missions work, including North American mission projects and traveling to Honduras and Venezuela to serve with international mission projects.
Always active in his community, Rev. Smith was past president of the Greater Tupelo Ministerial Association, a member of the advisory committee for the department of pastoral care of the North Mississippi Medical Center, and chaplain and past president of the Tupelo Civitan Club.
No matter how demanding his schedule, Rev. Smith never failed to make his family a priority. He and his wife had two children, Paul and Catherine, both of whom are MC graduates. In recent years, their close-knit family grew to include grandchildren and step-grandchildren, all of whom who cherished their time with their beloved “Pop.”
“When our children were small, Bill read to them, endured football games and recitals, and took them along when he visited shut-ins,” Mary Ellis recalls. “When they got older and had families of their own, we were all still very close. When our children called just to chat, they’d talk to me, but if they had a problem or an issue they were facing, it was always, ‘Is Daddy there?’ Our grandchildren adored Bill and he was very close to them.”
Mary Ellis describes her husband as a man of unwavering faith with a good sense of humor, a remarkable sense of purpose, and an untiring dedication to whatever task he chose to accept.
“Bill was also slow to make a commitment, because if he promised to do something, he wanted to be sure he could follow through,” Mary Ellis Smith says. “Anything Bill undertook, he gave 110 percent.”
That included Rev. Smith’s many commitments to Mississippi College. Rev. Smith is a former president of the MC Alumni Association and was an active member of the board of trustees.
“Bill was enormously faithful to Mississippi College,” says MC President Dr. Lee Royce. “He truly lived out his commitment to the university and gave it his all. Bill traveled from Tupelo to Clinton frequently to attend meetings and events of all kinds, often at some expense and always making a sacrifice of his time. He was also so faithful in his duties as a trustee. I might know trustees who have been equally faithful, but I know of none who have been more faithful than Bill Smith.”
Upon Rev. Smith’s passing, Mary Ellis Smith received hundreds of notes, cards, and letters, many from people she had never met who wished to tell her what her husband had meant to them. One note that particularly touched her referred to Rev. Smith as “no respecter of persons,” a description that Mary Ellis Smith says was accurate.
“Some people are easier to like than others, but Bill saw everyone the same way,” Mary Ellis Smith says. “He always saw the good in people.”
Mary Ellis Smith is still grieving for her husband, but she has many memories to cherish and takes comfort in the faith she and Rev. Smith shared during their more than half-century marriage.
“My circumstances are so much better than some others I know of who have lost their spouses,” says Mary Ellis Smith, who now wears her late husband’s wedding ring as well as her own. “I have family close by, a wonderful church family and pastor, and of course, I have my faith. I know that our God is all sufficient.”
Mary Ellis Smith’s last memory of her beloved husband is at once funny and touching, and seems to sum up Rev. William Smith’s life.
“That last memory is a wonderful memory,” Mary Ellis Smith says. “Bill was leaving the condo in South Carolina to go to the beach that day, and I took a picture of him holding up a t-shirt someone had given him. It said, ‘Live your life so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.’”