Good Bye and God Bless, Miss Smith

South Miami-Dade County lost one of its greatest and longest serving leaders this week with the death of Juanita Smith - educator, Florida City vice mayor and commissioner and volunteer civic leader.

   Juanita (maiden name Smith) grew up in St. Petersburg Florida.  She graduated from the famous Tuskegee Institute in 1947.  As a college graduate who could not find work, she briefly toiled in the bean fields of Palm Beach County and served as a maid to a family in Palm Beach and one in Miami Beach.  Always one to learn from every experience Ms. Smith said of one of the ladies she worked for, "she taught me to be a lady."

   Teaching jobs were difficult to come by, especially for blacks, so she took a job with the federal government as a traveling social worker.  She traveled through the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida working to make life better for poverty stricken black families. As an example of the poverty level, many still had privies instead of inside plumbing.

   Juanita and her husband Thom (Thomas Hunter Smith) met in Tampa in 1955, fell in love and married on April 19, 1956. Thus Juanita Smith became Juanita Smith-Smith.   Juanita was in her late twenties. The son and grandson of contractors, and one himself and ever the resourceful man, Thom salvaged lumber from WWII military buildings and built their first home in Seffner, Florida.     Juanita did substitute teaching in Hillsborough County elementary schools for two years for which she was paid $7 per day.  She later taught full time there for five years. The Smiths had three sons who did not survive infancy before daughter Carol Tracey was born.

   In 1967 Thom bid on constructing a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Florida City and was the low bidder.  He moved to Florida City and began the job.  Juanita and their daughter, Carol Tracey age 4, joined Thom later. Tracey would follow in her mother's footsteps and she too became a teacher. The church building that was replaced was on SW 6th Street and 5th Court.  Juanita began substitute teaching in Dade County at A. L. Lewis and Florida City Elementary for the healthier sum of $11 per day.

   Thom and Juanita purchased two triplexes which had never been completed. They lived in one of the units and rented the other five.  They could not be landlords in today's world.  They believed in the sanctity of marriage and would only rent to married couples.  They made one exception for a single mother who convinced them that she shared their values.  She raised a son who went on to play in the National Football league.

   Juanita became certified as a civics teacher which opened many doors for her career.  A teachers strike gave her the opportunity to teach in Miami Beach.  She taught at Mays High School when the influx of Cuban refugee children resulted in double sessions:  7 a.m. to 12 noon and 12 noon until 5 p.m.  She taught at Homestead Middle School until Campbell Drive Middle School opened.  A student slammed Juanita's hand in a door and she subsequently was out of work for five months. She returned to A.L. Lewis Elementary as a kindergarten teacher to accommodate the influx of students bused to A.L. Lewis. Discipline was never a problem in her classrooms. She retired from teaching after Hurricane Andrew with 26 years teaching in Miami-Dade County and seven in Hillsborough.

   Juanita began her political career in 1980 when she ran for Florida City Commissioner and won.  She lost only one election. On that particular election day, Ms. Smith was working at the Homestead Soup Kitchen and delivering meals to shut-ins. Some thought she should have been out talking to voters.  That never entered her mind. The man she lost to – Israel Andrews later resigned to run unsuccessfully for the Florida House and Juanita was returned to the Commission.  She served from 1980 until 2008 as commissioner and vice mayor.

   Juanita and Thom owned a funeral home – Smith and Smith Funeral Chapel in Miami at 55th Street and NW 27th Avenue from 1988 until after Hurricane Andrew. When they had to focus on Florida City they leased it out and later converted it to a day care center.

   Also after Hurricane Andrew – which impacted the Smiths in many ways – they purchased the home they lived in at 706 NW 3rd Street owned by then Florida City police officer Valerie Hughley.  They could not convince Valerie that her house was substantial – she just wanted to sell it and so Thom and Juanita purchased it and made it habitable.

   And again Hurricane Andrew changed Juanita's life.  Shortly after the hurricane hit Juanita and her good friend and fellow teacher, the late Ernestine Seymour, went to the Homestead Soup Kitchen to see if they could help. They had previously helped serve Thanksgiving dinners.  

Help they did. Ernestine ended up serving as treasurer and Juanita as director/president – a job she held until she retired two years ago.  Juanita's ‘school teacher sense of discipline’ prevailed at the Soup Kitchen. Caps were removed, clients treated each other civilly and no foul language was used.

   Juanita and Thom, the love of her life, always lived out their faith, most often very quietly.  They adopted two girls and a boy whom they raised as "grandchildren" with significant help from their  daughter Carol, who has acted as mother to the children. 

   Florida City and our greater community of South Miami-Dade County are blessed to have had Juanita and Thom Smith among us.  Thom passed away October 23, 2015 and Juanita passed away on September 24, 2017 at age 90.

   Just recently Juanita asked me to meet with her to add to her biography and to her legacy.  After she left the Museum she entered her car and drove half way up the driveway and stopped.  After a short while I went out to her car to see if she was OK.  She got out of her car, asked me to take her hands and she prayed for me. Without saying another word she got back into her car and left. That was my last experience with my friend Juanita Smith.

“I had the great honor and privilege of serving with Juanita many, many years on the Florida City Commission. She was quite simply one of the most decent and caring individuals I have ever known. Whatever the business that came before the commission, Juanita could always be counted on to make sure that the people came first.”

“I have referred to her over the years as ‘the conscience of the commission.’ Even after she retired, Juanita was still tireless in her efforts to help people. Whenever I called her home I would always ask her husband Thom, “where is the roadrunner?” because she was always on the move helping someone. Florida City has lost a piece of its heart with her passing,” Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace lamented.

“Vice Mayor, as I affectionately called her, was a phenomenal woman who loved God, her family, and her friends.  She will be missed, but always remembered for her lifetime deeds of serving God and her community,” is how Greer Wallace remembered her friend.

Ms. Smith made a lifelong friend at the soup kitchen over 40 years ago. Irene Middlebrook, who cooks at the kitchen three days a week, said, “She was a very dear friend. She always tried to help everybody. God bless her.”

   Former Dade Correctional Institution Warden Jerry Cummings came out of a short-lived retirement to fill Ms. Smith’s shoes when she retired. Cummings said, “I am a small piece of the legacy that Ms. Juanita Smith leaves behind. I am grateful that Ms. Smith chose me to succeed her in the operation of the soup kitchen. Ms. Smith’s hard work, dedication and passion for taking care of her community will never be forgotten.”

   “I was blessed to be befriended by 'Ms. Smith' shortly after I moved here,” commented News Leader Publisher Dale Machesic, “We have many teachers in life. Ms. Smith is one of my favorites. Among the lessons I learned from her came one day at the soup kitchen when she scolded me for doing too much for someone. It was a lesson in personal dignity and responsibility. I will always remember her with heartfelt fondness and respect.”