Wayne Smith

News Obituary Article

Friendship Force founder Smith dies


Friendship Force founder Wayne Smith, who grew up in a bar and integrated a black college, devoted his life to bringing people from different countries and cultures together.

"Wayne had a wonderful vision and the means for achieving it," said George Brown of Atlanta, president of Friendship Force International, which was founded in 1977 and is headquartered in Atlanta. "That means was the idea of having people with very different cultures, languages, religions and politics spend a few days in each other's homes. They start as strangers and end up as friends."

The Rev. Smith, 69, who had myasthenia gravis, a nerve disease, took his own life Wednesday at his residence in Big Canoe. The memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Monday at Big Canoe Chapel. Cagle Funeral Home of Jasper is in charge of arrangements.

The Rev. Smith led groups of volunteer "ambassadors" in exchanges all over the world, including war-torn and Cold War countries. In 1990, he oversaw a two-week trip by 300 Americans to visit Soviet Georgians in Atlanta's sister city, Tbilisi.

"The Friendship Force became the first group to organize home stays in the Soviet Union," said his daughter, Susan Smith of Claremont, Calif., a former Friendship Force president.

"What we fear most is the unknown," the Rev. Smith said in a 1985 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story. "If we learn these people and if they learn us, then maybe we can begin to stop being afraid of one another and begin building bridges of friendship."

The Rev. Smith forged friendships with boxer Muhammad Ali, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and many others, including former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who became influential supporters of the Friendship Force from its inception.

By the time the Rev. Smith retired as Friendship Force president in 2000, the nonprofit organization had grown enormously.

"Wayne never set out to form a global institution, but today we have 350 chapters in more than 50 countries,' Mr. Brown said. 'We will have about 4,000 citizen ambassadors going out this year."

"Wayne Smith was the best I've ever seen at putting relationships together," said Boyd Lyons of Atlanta, former executive director of Friendship Force. "He had the ability to go into a strange city, ride from the airport with the taxi driver, and the next thing you know he was sitting in the mayor's office, saying, 'Why don't you have a Friendship Force here?' "

Sometimes the Rev. Smith used unorthodox methods to achieve his ends. In 1992, he brought a Russian, a Pole, two Latvians and a Soviet Georgian together at his Big Canoe home and told them to disrobe and enter the outdoor hot tub naked. "What better way to get rid of the barriers that divide us?" he asked in a 1992 Journal-Constitution story.

The Rev. Smith grew up poor in Charleston, W.Va., living with his maternal grandmother and stepgrandfather upstairs from the bar and pool hall they ran. His high school girlfriend, Carolyn Heaster, began taking him to her Presbyterian church, and he underwent a religious conversion. The couple married two years later, when he was 19.

He chose to enroll in nearby West Virginia State College "because they had fantastic teachers and it was cheaper," said his daughter. It didn't concern him that he was the first white person to attend the all-black institution. "He never saw barriers," his daughter said.

He eventually became a Presbyterian minister, and he served as a missionary in Brazil from 1963 to 1970. His work there so impressed the Rev. Vernon Broyles of Atlanta's North Avenue Presbyterian Church that he invited the Rev. Smith to become his director of community ministries.

His efforts included programs for the area's street people, said Tom Roddy of Atlanta, who succeeded him as the church's community minister.

Once, a barefoot homeless man approached the Rev. Smith and asked for help. He took off his shoes and gave them to the man. "That's the kind of guy he was," Mr. Lyons said.

Life hardly slowed after the Rev. Smith retired from the Friendship Force. In 2002, he led a group of 45 Atlanta religious leaders --- Christians, Jews and Muslims --- on a "World Pilgrims" trip to Turkey.

"We rode across Turkey on a bus and spent 10 days together. It was designed so that every three days we would room with someone of a different faith," said Plemon El-Amin of Atlanta, imam of the Atlanta Masjid and the Islamic leader of the group. "Wayne felt that if we got to know each other we could find friendships for peace, and that's exactly what happened. The 45 of us became true friends, and since coming back we have done over 100 different events in Atlanta."

"Dad wanted to get people together," Susan Smith said. "He was a natural matchmaker, the matchmaker supreme."

Survivors also include his wife, Carolyn Smith; three sons, David Smith of Hilton Head Island, S.C., Stephen Smith of Marietta and Andrew Smith of Raleigh; a brother, James Smith of Big Canoe; a sister, Barbara Peggs of Charleston, W.Va.; and five grandchildren.

© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published by Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jun. 20, 2004.
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