Select Carefully Your Mom and Dad

Charles Smith with wife, Shawna Lea (left), and his mother (right) during a visit at an elementary school cafeteria when he was Commissioner of Education for the state of Tennessee.

It is a fundamental truth that parents make a crucial difference in the successes and failures of their children.

I was the firstborn of two sons raised by God-fearing parents who made us the centerpiece of their lives. From our birth to the day each of us left home for college, my brother, Lloyd, and I were the beneficiaries of a home life where the teachings of the Bible were ever evident, where discipline was administered in an uncompromising way, and where a wealth of love more than compensated for a lack of material riches.

In our home, our strong-willed mother was clearly and consistently the disciplinarian. My brother and I knew well the boundaries of acceptable behavior and the penalties for transgressions. Mother rarely spared the rod. She got us to church on time as often as the doors were open. She made sure that we were dressed appropriately and that our clothes were clean and pressed. She always had a solid breakfast and a “meat and three” for dinner.

Her boys (and she included dad as one of the boys) were the alpha and omega of her life. To her, our existence was her reason for being. She gave us 100 percent of her time and attention. To the best of my memory, she never missed a PTA meeting while we were in school. She insisted that we do our homework, and she reviewed our report cards the way an IRS agent inspects an income tax return.

While our mother clearly gave us our marching orders, Dad was our role model. An electrician (the best in our town by most accounts), he exhibited day after day the trials and values of hard work and the importance of being the best at whatever one does. Our dad had always been a proud man, tough-minded, an over-achiever, an optimist. In his eyes, no mountain was too high to climb.

In our home, profanity was neither practiced nor permitted. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco in any form were never present. The Bible was the textbook of choice, and prayer before every meal and at bedtime was a daily given.

My Dad sitting in my campaign bus wearing a “Charles Smith for Governor” hat.

The workaholic nature of our father was contagious. At early ages, my brother and I were introduced to hard work. Many times, we accompanied him on work assignments. I remember that, even as small children, we often assisted him by pulling electrical cables through the ceilings of homes and attaching wires to electrical outlets in the walls.

In large measure, my brother and I abided by the rules of discipline set forth by our parents. There were exceptions, one fleetingly embarrassing and another forever etched in my memory. The former was simply a case of curfew violation by my brother and me. In a small town in the time of our childhood, the only real game in town at night was hanging out at some ice cream parlor or service station.

On the night in question, my brother and I were innocently hanging out after midnight at the only ice cream parlor in town when, much to our horror, we spotted our mother rapidly approaching in our father’s old pickup truck. As she drew nearer, we were further shocked to see that her hair was in curlers and she had on her nightgown. We had no idea what she was about to do.

As she passed the ice cream parlor, she blew the truck’s horn, pointed at us in an unspoken language we clearly understood, and motioned toward home. We got the message and immediately proceeded to go home. We were greeted at the door, told simply to go straight to bed, and advised to make a special effort to never violate curfew again. We were relieved that the rod was spared.

Over the years, the lessons I learned at home have stuck with me. The mental toughness inherited from my father and the strong will instilled in me by my mother served me well in the rough and tumble environment in which I worked. The discipline to which I was consistently exposed has given my life a well-ordered structure and a steady rudder.

Interestingly, the yearbook of my senior year contains a caption that to this day puzzles me, even as it seems to have foreseen the life that was yet before me. Underneath my senior class photograph is the caption, “Nothing can turn him from his purpose.” To this day, I have no idea who wrote that line, although I suspect it was my favorite teacher. What puzzles me is that at that time, I was a shy, unassuming student who was still unclear about what I wanted to do in life. Someone apparently saw in me something I did not see in myself. Perhaps it was simply an accurate reading of my parents’ impact on my life. Truly they made a difference, and I shall be forever grateful.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 1. © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

Introduction to Journal of a Fast Track Life

(The following is the Introduction from Journal of a Fast Track Life. Enjoy!)

Life is a source of many mysteries, perhaps none more puzzling than why some people make it to the top of their professions while others, who appear to have all the right stuff, try but stumble and fail along the way.

This mystery intrigued me more and more as the years of my life passed and my career ascended to totally unexpected heights. If life is an adventure, as many observers have written over the years, I have had one heck of a ride – county newspaper editor at age twenty-one, press secretary for the Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee at twenty-nine, chancellor of a university at thirty-five, editor of a major metropolitan daily newspaper at forty, state commissioner of education at forty-seven, chancellor of the nation’s seventh largest system of higher education at fifty-four, candidate for governor at sixty-two, and chief executive of a major federal agency at sixty-three.

Why me? How did a shy, introverted, small-town kid with average intelligence and no “silver spoon” make it to the top in three different professions? That question is ever on my mind, and the conclusions I have reached are the focus of this book. I write this in the hope that in some small way, the lessons I have learned will help other young men and women find the way to success in the wonderful game of life.

A word of caution: Living life as an adventure is not for everyone. In fact, history has shown that the vast majority of people are perfectly content to take the safe pathway and go from birth to death without ever experiencing the joy of victory or the agony of defeat. Early in my career, I was among that majority, and I honestly believe that had circumstances, opportunity, and preparation not converged in my life, I could have found happiness and contentment on the safe route.

That circumstance, however, was not to happen in my case. So while the lessons of this book target people who have the ambition to reach as high as they can, perhaps even those individuals who are pursuing the safe pathway will find herein the inspiration to swap a planned life of comfort for a life of adventure.

Obviously, luck and fate play major roles in the successes and failures of human beings. But I am convinced that the end game is matching preparation with opportunity. Over the years, I have seen many people who had opportunity but were not prepared and, of course, many others who were prepared but never got the opportunity. The former have no one but themselves to blame, and the latter are simply the unlucky ones.

This book is organized in a way that gives prominence to the key lessons in my life that enabled me to be prepared when opportunities arose. The lessons presented are the result of hundreds of hours of reflection on my life and career. The “why me?” question is at the heart of my inquiry, but it is my belief that the lessons of my life have relevance to every young man and woman who wants to succeed in his or her chosen profession.

I truly believe life is an adventure and should be experienced to the fullest. That has certainly been my motto over the years. The lessons that follow may help others shape their lives in ways that will make the adventure exciting and fulfilling.

© Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.