Wallace Smith, casting around for something to do on Christmas Day 1999, found his way into a Santa suit and headed north on Interstate 40 in a sleigh -- aka his black Chevy Tahoe -- filled with presents.
He had, more than twice, checked lists of the young residents of a children's home in Russellville, and he had hauled in several bags of presents when a 5-year-old girl wandered into the room and saw him there.
"It was about 5:30 in the morning, and I had just gotten the last present under the tree," he says. "She said 'Oh my gosh! Santa came, and he's still here!' She started yelling and screaming. And now, all these kids boil out of there, and I'm getting mobbed. And so it was kind of cool. I got to hand out presents to all of those kids. That was my first Santa experience."
He was hooked. He has expanded on and repeated his Santa project every Christmas for the last 21 years, varying the beneficiaries of his efforts based on where they are most needed. If one shelter already has a lot of donations for Christmas morning, he calls another. There is always someone who needs help, he says.
He gets donations of toys, gift cards and money from his church, Holy Souls Catholic Church, and from his co-workers at Garver, where he is the director of federal services, and he shops at the last minute to fill in the gaps. He creates spreadsheets showing what he needs -- an age-appropriate gift for each child, a warm blanket and a gift card for each adult and batteries to make everything work.
"It's amazing the giving that goes on in our community," he says. "It's a cynical world, but I'll tell you, people give. If they understand what they're doing, people will give, and it's an amazing thing to see."
Women and Children First was one of the shelters Smith contacted early on. About five years ago he joined the organization's board of directors.
"I had just reached out to Women and Children First and said, you know this Santa thing, we're helping, but you know, I could probably do more," he says. "Maybe I can be helping take care of the shelter in a more meaningful way and a lot more days than just Christmas."
Smith is the board's facility chairman, putting his training as a civil engineer to use in caring for the 110-year-old building that houses the shelter.
He is also the first man, since the event began in 2007, to serve as chairman of the Woman of the Year Gala, which raises money to cover the shelter's annual operations costs.
"We have had female co-chairs and a few couples, but never a solo male," says Cindy Murphy, who has served on the Women and Children First board with Smith. "He's the most organized chair I have ever worked with."
Smith shares a self-deprecating anecdote about how he delegated responsibilities for the gala to members of his committee -- he chose members to deal with tasks related to linens, flowers and other decor -- and at the next meeting asked if those items had been taken care of. They hadn't, and at first, he just wanted to know why. Then it dawned on him that those parts had to be coordinated, rather than completed in isolation.
"Well, I'm a man. To me, those were just tasks that needed to be done," quips Smith, who quickly redirected. "We said 'OK, let's powwow out here and let's make it happen. So now we're rocking and rolling."
Smith didn't make the same mistake twice.
"He's one to quickly catch on to the system," Murphy says. "He's logical, very sharp and very open."
FAMILY PEACE CENTER
The 14th Woman of the Year Gala, honoring Marcy Doderer, president and chief executive officer of Arkansas Children's Hospital, will be held Feb. 15 in the Grand Ballroom of the Little Rock Marriott.
"I'm hoping going into that evening will be at $350,000," he says. "Then we do pledge cards there that night and I'm hoping we'll pick up money from there."
However, Women and Children First faces expenses far beyond what might be raised in the near future, he says.
"I would really like to see us raise $10 million to build a Family Peace Center on land we have acquired from the city," he says. "The mission that we're doing, we're doing out of a completely inadequate building that's 110 years old."
Cathy Browne, chairwoman of the Women and Children First board, commends Smith for his part in securing the 99-year lease on land in southwest Little Rock that they hope will be home to a new shelter.
"Wallace has just been instrumental in helping us push forward on the future of Women and Children First," Browne says. "We found this piece of land that is in the most glorious place it could possibly be. We ended up talking to the mayor, talking to city planners, talking to people that will be our neighbors. ... It certainly didn't hurt that Wallace knew all these people beforehand and they knew Wallace."
In 2018, Women and Children First provided safe beds to 590 adults and 470 children who had been victims of family violence, and answered more than 7,300 crisis, information and referral calls. The organization also assisted in the filing of more than 750 orders of protection and assisted 20 families with moves into transitional housing.
"Hopefully, we've done it all right. We have taken someone that showed up on our doorstep, in essence, a refugee. And now, we just have that person back up outside in the world free of violence with their kids, and a job, and they can be proud," says Smith of the work done by Women and Children First.
DESERT SHIELD AND DESERT STORM
Smith knows that the people asking for help have little means, and he knows what that looks like.
He does what he can to help them, in part, because he couldn't help the people he saw in the Middle East while he was serving in the U.S. Army during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
"People looking through trash for food and children -- I mean, 5-year-olds -- helping parents scavenge for food," he says, "just breaks your heart."
He was still in college then, at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, La., and he had no reference point for what he was seeing.
"I grew up classic middle class," he says. "My first car was the car I saved up and bought, but I certainly didn't want for anything. I had a good home life, and this was the first real exposure to a lot of people way, way worse off than middle class -- a lot of people that just had nothing in life."
His father, Wallace Cayford Smith II -- Wally -- worked as an engineer, and his promotions led to family moves from Cincinnati, where Smith was born, to Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; and finally to Alexandria, La.
Smith was in eighth grade when the family settled in Alexandria, where his father bought an engineering business. Now retired, he sold the business so he could teach and coach cross country and track at Holy Savior Menard Central High in Alexandria.
His mother, Becky, worked as a nurse.
"God bless her soul, you know, she just gave and gave and when the new nurses had graduated school and they're trying to learn how to do it, my mom would volunteer her arm and let them practice doing the IVs," Smith says. "She has been punctured hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times letting nurses practice."
Smith's younger brother, Doug, lives in Tampa. His sister, Jenny, was 16 years old when she died after a drunken driver hit her car as she drove home from a church retreat on Feb. 1, 1992.
"It was a life-altering event," says Smith, who had recently graduated from college and started his first job when the wreck happened. "We were very close. Being eight years older than she, I had changed diapers and helped teach her to walk and all those things. She was the youngest and being a girl, she was the apple of everyone's eye."
Smith was newly married, then, to his college sweetheart. They divorced in 1998. They have two sons, Luke, who lives in Fayetteville, and Nate, who lives in Little Rock.
Smith had not expected to be deployed when he got his orders. He went quickly from being a senior in college to being an "88 Mike" -- a motor transport operator.
"What I spent most of my time doing was driving 18-wheelers," he says.
His orders to deliver supplies or pick up prisoners at various locations weren't facilitated by global positioning system technology.
"The best a guy might be able to say was, 'You know that one highway? There's a sign on it. I don't remember exactly where it is, but it points to where you need to go.' I might drive 40 miles down a highway, looking for a wooden sign, and then I'd find it, and that sign, it would just have an arrow and it would point this way, 27 miles, and it's just out in the middle of the desert."
Nomads occasionally stopped them as they made their way across the sand.
"They would ask us to stop. And if we did, it didn't matter that we were armed to the teeth, they weren't really afraid of us. And they would just offer us tea," he says. "We were always a little surprised."
He formed opinions about humanity out there.
"No matter what you think about the Middle East or Libya -- gosh, guns and terrorism, yeah ... but 99% of all those countries' populations just want to be peaceful," he says. "They just want to provide for their families as well. It just does not take many people -- less than 1% actually -- to start shooting some guns to make it appear as if the whole country really has issues."
When he was deployed, with just 48 hours after receiving his orders to make arrangements before reporting for duty, he had little choice but to take incompletes in his classes. His professors helped him do what he needed to do to graduate after he made it home 10 months later, and he soon had a job at Garver in Little Rock.
"I've worked at a couple of other firms, and I came back to Garver about six and a half years ago as the director of federal services," Smith says. "Since I have a military background, I'm in charge of chasing all of our work for Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I work coast to coast and beyond coast to coast."
A KICK IN THE HEAD
His wife, Amanda, and their daughter, Kaylee, 15, join him on some of his travels, especially when he goes somewhere tropical, like Hawaii.
He and Amanda met in a taekwondo class he joined at the urging of his sons.
"We sparred, and she kicked me in the head," he says. "I had yet to even say a word to her. I was like, 'Wow.'"
Amanda Smith describes her husband of 16 years as outgoing.
"He loves live bands and music and just ... people," she says, describing friends they met years ago while vacationing in the Dominican Republic and still visit. "He always likes to be in lively situations. He likes to go and do and experience. He is very much the extrovert, he knows no strangers, and he always makes things fun. We could all be watching paint dry on the wall, and he would make a game out of it and make it fun."
Wallace Smith embraced his inner Jimmy Buffett at a concert last year by donning a lei with one of her flip flops attached and a Hawaiian shirt, both components of a past Halloween costume.
As Smith points out, "Margaritaville" is not a place, it's a state of mind.
But he has a serious side, as well.
"His professional side is fantastic," says Mike Griffin, Garver's director of aviation. "He's getting a lot of work for us, and all of his guys love him."
This, combined with his bent for philanthropy, makes him an appealing colleague and friend.
"I wish we could clone him, not only professionally but personally because he's a great asset to us," Griffin says.
In addition to the work he does with Women and Children First, "he also runs Garver's Secret Santa, where we collect donations from our employees and then deliver those to needy families at Christmas time," Griffin says. "He'll get our entire conference room filled up with toys and sort them, and he takes care of all that stuff."
Each year, when Smith puts on his Santa suit, he is joined by his elves -- including Amanda, who chooses the part of an elf rather than Mrs. Claus, he says, because Mrs. Claus is old. Kaylee and his parents are the other elves.
"It's kind of our Christmas Eve tradition," he says. "We usually hit a couple of shelters and it usually takes five or six hours."
Kaylee has joined the fun since she was about 5 years old, showing children how toys work and playing with them as they open their gifts. He hopes she will carry this philanthropic spirit into adulthood.
"I bet she probably does because I think she gets a kick out of it, too," he says.
There have been times when young children have clung to her during their visits, showing their gratitude and craving her affection and attention.
"It's just powerful sometimes," he says. "I consider it your duty to take care of yourself, your family and as many other people as you can in this world. I think it's your duty to at least give some kind of an attempt to hopefully leave the world at least a little better off than when you started with it."
• DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: July 12, 1967, Cincinnati
• I'M CURRENTLY READING: The Deserter by Nelson DeMille. But my favorite book of all time is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
• MY FAVORITE ALL-TIME TV SHOW: Seinfeld
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Was from my mom. She said, "Nothing good ever happens after midnight."
• I KNEW I WAS GROWN UP WHEN: My sister was killed by a drunken driver, and I knew I was going to have to help take care of my mom and dad. Also, being in a foxhole on Christmas night made me think, well, huh -- I must be an adult.
• IF I HADN'T BEEN AN ENGINEER: I would have gone to medical school. I like the idea of Doctors Without Borders. It just kind of fits with trying to give back to help those who are in need.
• I LIKE TO EAT: A steak from Hy's in Honolulu.
• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD INVITE TO A FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Buffett, Julius Caesar, Marilyn Monroe and Dave Chappelle.
• IF I COULD CHANGE TWO THINGS: I really wish we could be a lot less red and blue state and a lot more purple. And I need $10 million to build a family peace center on land Women and Children First has acquired by the city to replace the 110-year-old building we're in right now.
• MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: Honolulu
• THE BEST CONCERT I'VE EVER SEEN: Jimmy Buffett
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Dutiful
“It’s amazing the giving that goes on in our community. It’s a cynical world, but I’ll tell you, people give. If they understand what they’re doing, people will give and it’s an amazing thing to see.”
High Profile on 01/12/2020