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Everyday Heroes: Pat Smith’s passion lives
on through Habitat for Humanity endowment

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

This story about Pat Smith is taken from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, ‘Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes.’ The Pat Smith Habitat for Humanity Endowment Fund, established by the executive committee of the Board of Directors of Lexington Habitat for Humanity, continues to raise money to build Habitat houses locally and around the world. With the blessing of Pat’s family, donations in memory of his service can be sent to: Pat Smith Habitat for Humanity Endowment Fund, Lexington Habitat for Humanity, 700 E. Loudon Ave., Lexington, Ky. 40505.

There were over 100 Central Kentuckians gathered. It was on South Carolina Street, in Gulfport, Miss., on Thanksgiving 2006.

Pat Smith

Pat Smith

The task, besides enjoying a bountiful feast and celebrating the human spirit of compassion, was to build 13 houses, or maybe more accurately, to lift a bit of new life out of the desolation of Hurricane Katrina. Some who came were the old regulars who faithfully immersed themselves in Habitat for Humanity projects locally, nationally, even internationally. Dedicated, they continued their good work.

There were many, however, who were there for the first time. It was important, each of them thought, to be there—at that place, at that time. They came because they knew Pat Smith, and they wanted to honor him by helping complete the last project he had championed, one that he was in route to oversee on Aug. 27, 2006, when he boarded the fateful Comair Flight 5191 from Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport. The 58-year-old Smith had been one of 49 people that day who died in a fiery crash moments after takeoff—now considered one of Kentucky‘s all-time worst human catastrophes.

Pat Smith loved his community. He was, son Brian said, a true “soccer dad” who followed his son throughout his playing days around Lexington, and he served in leadership roles in Christ the King Church and the schools Brian and sister Jennifer attended.

Jennifer talked of the close relationship she had with her father. “We were running partners, three times a week, and did races together. He always wanted to talk while we were running, but I couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. It used to drive him crazy,“ she laughed.

But even with the close family ties and his network of friends around Central Kentucky, Pat Smith’s community was bigger than most people’s—much bigger. His community stretched from Central Kentucky to America’s Deep South and to Mexico, onward to West and South Africa, to Northern Ireland and India and Sri Lanka. Smith, sponsored by the worldwide Habitat organization, built “simple, affordable houses,” thousands of them, but more importantly, he helped build and he helped get the best out other individuals’ lives.

“There’s no way I would have done some of the things I’ve done without Pat’s influence,” said Jean Smith, his wife of 37 years. “Like going to places like Ghana on our 50 birthdays, which was a place with no running water, and helping build mud brick houses.” She told a newspaper that “Our family’s life with Pat was an adventure. He encouraged all of us to stretch what we thought we were capable of and use our God-given talents to be all that we could be.”

Jean, a normally quiet, more reserved person than Pat, found herself able to speak before groups about her passion for Ghana—a product of Pat Smith’s influence, as he often stood next to her. There marriage exemplified the “team” approach.

Pat Smith (Photo provided)

In a tribute written in a Habitat for Humanity newsletter, Smith was called ‘an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.’ (Photo provided)

Louis Rives, a business partner, lifelong close friend, and one of the few people Pat Smith couldn’t seem to cajole into traveling to a distant land to build houses while braving the natural elements, said that even when they were on business trips together, he would often be on the phone, “coordinating some big Habitat projects. He was a compassionate, caring kind of guy who was a practical joker, and he was able to get people to join him on these projects.”

Dennis Pike was another close friend of Pat Smith. He participated frequently with Smith on Habitat “builds,” most notably international projects in India and Sri Lanka, where the 2004 tsunami catastrophe occurred. Smith led 80 people from Kentucky as they built 26 houses in Muzhukkuthurai and other fishing villages in southern India.

In a tribute written by Pike in a Habitat newsletter, he called Smith “an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” and he meant it not as a trite platitude. The two climbed Mt. Kilanmajaro in Africa, went on safaris and took adventurous hikes in other places. Smith ran the Chicago Marathon and ran the local Bluegrass 10,000 many times with his daughter Jennifer.

Pike marveled as he saw Smith spend three months in India. He noted that Smith made at least 15 trips to Ghana, and under his guidance built 56 houses, a church and a three-room school, as well as a library. After the library was built, Pike remarked that that wasn’t enough for his friend “Pat looked at the completed library and said it needed books, so he arranged to have 3,000 sent from the International Book Project in Lexington.”

When the books arrived in Ghana, the shipment hit a troublesome snag before reaching it’s assigned destination. Again, Smith’s passion for others and his desire to finish what he started drove him to remedy the situation. He and Pike made a special visit to a commerce official in Ghana to make sure they were delivered to the library. “We drove three hours on a terrible road to get there. Our roads in this country are nothing like theirs.” Pike said. Pike laughed about something Smith often said. “When he would say, ‘I’ve got an idea…,’ I always wondered what would come next. I knew it was something big.”

Lexington Habitat for Humanity executive director Grant Eaton Phelps emphasized the vision of Pat Smith. “Pat’s vision was an ‘implementable’ vision,” said Phelps. “He not only came up with the idea, he had the ability to make it work and could share the idea with others. He was a positive, servant leader who was a humble guy and had tremendous energy.”
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Phelps, who thinks about Smith “every time a plane flies overhead,” said that if Smith could come back and talk to each person he knew, he would tell them “to keep building houses, keep up the work.”

Smith was held in high esteem even on the international level. He was named Habitat’s Volunteer of the Year in 2004. Not surprisingly, Smith donated the money to a fund to send Lexington Habitat staff members on international assignments. Dennis Pike mentioned that Habitat’s international board of directors respected him and listened carefully to his recommendations. “They took in consideration the insights he had gained, even if they disagreed on some things,” Pike said.

The memory and inspiration of Smith’s work will now, in addition, act as an investment for building houses. As his daughter, Jennifer, remarked, “Everything was an adventure with Dad.“ Volunteers in the future will find even more support to follow in Smith’s adventurous endeavors of compassion. The Pat Smith Habitat for Humanity Endowment Fund was created for that purpose. The fund’s goal is to raise $1 million and will be used to build Habitat houses in Lexington and internationally, with an emphasis in Ghana, plus support habitat’s disaster relief projects.

Pat Smith’s legacy will live on in the people he touched. The Thanksgiving gathering at Gulfport will always be remembered as special and emotional. “But it was emotional in a good way,” said Louis Rives, who attended. People giving, people remembering, people looking to the future with hope and modeled by a life well lived by Pat Smith. As Brian Smith told a reporter, “At first I thought it was tying up the last chapter of his life, but it’s not the last chapter…it’s a chapter. It’s just a matter of continuing his work.”



Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and an author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. He is currently working on “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” due to be released in spring 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common:Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

For more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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