Partial to Home: Alan Smith's quiet good works


Birney Imes



When Alan Smith passed from this world Sunday evening, he was in his home surrounded by an adoring family, who had been remembering him with stories. There was little doubt how the evening would play out. A long bout with cancer would soon be over.


Liberated by this inevitably, the mood was one of contemplative joy. This is a close family and not the first time its members had gathered at the bed of its patriarch.


After all, there was nothing the subject of these tales enjoyed more than the recounting of his foibles.



It was a fitting departure for a man who treasured family above all else, a man who took it as his life's mission to help others.


As B.J. Chain, the young pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said at a memorial service Wednesday morning: "Alan Smith was a man who did not leave much good undone."


If you knew Alan, you know this was not a lazy platitude. Through his church, his business and his family, Alan used the fruits of a lifetime of hard work to quietly help others, often in surprising and unconventional ways.


To his marriage with Susan Bowen, Alan brought three children. With Susan's three, who were about the same ages, you had what resembled a 50s sit-com.


In time these six, their partners and offspring would take their separate paths. Even so, they remained a source of amusement and boundless joy for Alan and Susan, who continued to be a safe harbor for them during the inevitable difficult spells that beset young people.


Alan called Susan his soulmate. That was plain to see. They were inseparable and utterly supportive of each other. Together they were a formidable team, navigating the complexities of family, business and, ultimately, his care.


Alan's love of horticulture began with a job at a Hattiesburg nursery during high school. After college he took a job as custodian of what would become Mynelle Gardens in Jackson. His working life was consumed with selling, planting and caring for plants. His love of growing things never waned.


For more than 30 years he and Susan operated Smith Landscaping and Greenhouse. The first location was at the intersection of Sixth Street and 18th Avenue North where a Burger King sits today. Several years ago they rehabbed the vacant Barnhill's building at the corner of 18th Avenue and Seventh Street, converting a potential eyesore into a lovely retail nursery.


A visit to The Greenhouse was always a delight. The staff, as well as the inventory, was eclectic. The place -- especially the one at the Burger King location -- felt like a small, whimsical botanical garden.


Erin Coggins worked at both locations, first with a landscaping crew and then in retail.


"There was so much good about Alan," Coggins said. "He believed in giving a person a second chance," she said in reference to his practice of hiring ex-felons.


One afternoon Coggins told Alan she was taking her children to the fair when she got off work.


"He told me the fair was a waste of money, then he gave me $100 to spend on my children."


Alan could be blunt with customers, famously so.


"I wish one day I could run a business like you," Coggins once told him, "cut a customer off, and they would come back.


That bluntness wasn't limited to demanding customers. Once Alan and I were walking in our backyard. It was mid-summer and my chaotic garden was in all its glory.


At the time he was teaching a continuing education course on gardening at The W and in the week ahead he would be taking his students on a walking tour of Southside gardens.


He looked around. "I'm afraid you're not going to make the cut," he said.


You could have your feelings hurt or find his bluntness funny, typical Alan, unedited and to the point.


Alan was an elder in First Presbyterian Church on Bluecutt Road and for many years a star soloist in the choir. He led the church's efforts in a ministry that provides clean water to communities in Central America and locally, a school lunch backpack program.


He often spoke in glowing terms about Tom Richardson's Sunday school class of which he was part of for more than 20 years. Richardson, who was not able to attend Wednesday's service, sent a letter read by Pastor Chain during the service. Here is an excerpt.



The most lasting lesson in all these years of Sunday School, I think, came not from the teacher or our theologians or our writers, but from Alan Smith--a lesson worthy of one of Jesus's parables.


He compared the questions of faith to a living shrub, which can withstand the bends and buffeting of the elements. A rigid faith that has ceased growing, on the other hand, is like a dead plant. And what happens when you bend a dead branch? It breaks.


Alan's faith was a living faith. Alan asked questions, perhaps he sometimes over-analyzed his faith, and perhaps he sometimes worried (probably unnecessarily) about whether he was doing enough for other people.


But I don't think Alan's faith ever stopped growing, and he never stopped living what he believed in.



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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