Dr. Smith died Saturday.
If you’ve lived for any time in eastern Montgomery County, that’s all you’d need to hear to know that the legendary 96-year life of Dr. George Robert Smith Jr. has come to an end.
Of course, there’s life and then there’s legacy, and Smith fully had both.
Natives of North Carolina, he and his wife, Mildred, first rolled into Shawsville in 1955 eager to set up a family medicine practice and put his new medical degree to work. Locals welcomed him with open arms and installed the couple in the old “Meadow Brook” home at the corner of U.S. 460 and Alleghany Spring Road. They lived upstairs above the clinic.
The following year he lured his friend, Dr. Clarence Taylor, and Taylor’s wife, Ora, to Shawsville. Together, from Meadow Brook and later out of a new clinic that Smith built across U.S. 460, they cared for the community for more than 40 years. In an era of no urgent care facilities, you could go to the back door of the clinic, pick up the phone and it would ring into whichever doctor was on call.
They themselves built their own homes next door to one another just a half-mile from the clinic on U.S. 460 on a road now appropriately called Pair O’Docs Lane.
In the 1960s on his old clinic site, Smith started construction on what would eventually become eastern Montgomery County’s biggest employer: the Meadowbrook Nursing Home. In 1982, Smith founded a nonprofit, the Mountain Valley Charitable Foundation, whose mission was to award scholarships to aspiring nurses to work at the nursing home.
After the nursing home closed in 2001, Mountain Valley Charitable Foundation, with Smith as its president, oversaw the nursing home’s revitalization into what it is today: the Meadowbrook Center, which features a branch of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library System, the Waldron Wellness Center, the Meadowbrook Museum, the George Gray Gallery and the space that would eventually be named in his honor: the Dr. George R. Smith Jr. Community Center.
Just down the road in Elliston, he led Mountain Valley Charitable Foundation to transform an old fire station into a community food pantry and thrift shop. Through the decades he also helped start the Shawsville Rescue Squad, was a driving force in the Shawsville Ruritan Club, served on countless regional and statewide medical boards, and I’m sure his obituary will list a host of other volunteer and charitable causes to which he devoted himself.
He was also the kindest, most generous person I ever knew – and his life and legacy forever changed me and my family.
You see, in 1997 my wife, Julia, and I moved to Roanoke for her to start Carilion’s family medicine residency program. Our plan was to move back to Alabama after her three-year stint.
But in 2000 she learned of an opening at one of Carilion’s newest clinics, which had been bought three years after its former physicians had retired. Still, these 70-something docs were so invested in the community they still insisted on being part of the interview process. And so Drs. Smith and Taylor ushered in Julia’s now 23-year tenure at Carilion Family Medicine – Shawsville. She still hears stories of patients whom Smith delivered, house calls he made and traumas he treated in the back room of the clinic.
In 2003, I was a former Roanoke Times reporter turned stay-at-home dad looking to connect with a greater cause outside of changing diapers. I learned about plans to revitalize the old Meadowbrook Nursing Home and hoped to help. The Mountain Valley Charitable Foundation welcomed me – an outsider like Smith had been nearly 50 years before – to join their efforts. And thus my nonprofit career began.
Today you can watch our BUZZ episode (https://youtu.be/pcR-vjn8gII) featuring the community impact of Smith and Mountain Valley Charitable Foundation, now known as Eastmont Community Foundation.
You can also drive U.S. 460 through Shawsville and see monuments to Smith’s life. There’s Pair O’Docs Lane. There’s the family medicine clinic still caring for the community’s health. There’s the Meadowbrook Center, where hundreds gather each day to exercise, socialize, research, work and play. There’s Old Town Fields, the Elliston Thrift Shop, the high school scholarships and all the other activities and programs created and sustained by Eastmont Community Foundation.
Only the life of Smith has passed away.