Every town has its characters. But these “individualists” are usually formed by the character of the town itself.
Sinclair Lewis’ great eponymous novel explored the hopeful adventures of would-be nonconformist George Babbitt, who fails to escape his everyday identity as a real-estate salesman, Rotary Club president, country club and lodge member, and proud wearer of the Booster pin of Zenith, his fictional midsize city. Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 — the first American to take the honor — helped in large part by Babbitt, a book touted as the most thorough documentation of community development ever.
My hometown had its “Babbitt” in the character of Walter B. Smith – “W as in water, B as in bull, and S as in sunshine” he would say, over and over, to tourists fleeing the summer heat of Florida and lower South Carolina. (Fact is, the green benches on Hendersonville’s Main Street were copied from their original counterparts in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Walter relished meeting visitors arriving via Greyhound bus or Southern Railway’s Carolina Special. “Welcome to the little town of Hendersonville, of which I own about one-third,” was his stock greeting. Sooner or later, you’d bump into him on Main Street as he worked the benches and high-back rocking chairs in front of the Skyland Hotel. Sometimes he gave members of his impromptu audience a sunflower similar to the one in the lapel of his rumpled, weather beaten coat. On a special day, he might have orchids for the ladies, taking great pains to describe the delicate blooms’ origins in his “Laurel Park hothouse.” Truth be known, they were castaways from a local wholesale florist who discarded sub-par, blemished specimens. It’s also been said he snitched them from the garden of C. Few, the town’s postmaster who grew beautiful flowers.
Holding a large map, Walter liked to inform outsiders needing directions that the “new super highway would generally follow the route of the old Buncombe Turnpike … now known as Howard Gap Road in Henderson County.” I looked at Walter’s map several times, and sure enough, his interpretation of Interstate Highway 26 was correct.
Walter was descended from an upper-middle-class family. It was rumored that he was once married and had sired one or more children, none of whom ever showed up during the time I knew him. Stories of and about Walter are numerous. Luckily he’s no longer around to question their authenticity.
One year, he ran for King of the North Carolina Apple Festival opposite young merchant Howard Kiss. It was an old-time fruit-jar election: contestants attached their photos to the jars and placed them in prominent high-traffic places, and passersby voted by pushing money through slits in the lid.
This little fundraiser hadn’t amounted to much until the year Walter became a candidate — and was elected by a landslide. Victorious, he came to the chamber-of-commerce office, which doubled as Apple Festival headquarters in the mid-1950s, and demanded that he be fitted for a robe and crown. He also wanted his own, separate float in the festival’s Labor Day parade, instead of riding alongside the Apple Queen (a request never again granted after Walter’s win).
For a long time, Walter and Mrs. Brach of the Brach Candy Company fortune were an item around town. Some said she had more “loose wires” than Smith had. Notions of their mental states aside, he didn’t own an automobile before he took up with her, and he didn’t have one after she ditched him, either.
Walter’s other high-profile friends included boxer Jack Dempsey, the reigning world heavyweight champ from the ’20s who trained in Hendersonville. But he wasn’t necessarily reverential of fame. Years later, he got an idea to have Flat Rock’s most famous resident Carl Sandburg photographed next to the Thomas Wolfe angel statue in Oakdale Cemetery. “That old goat could wave his hand and get the town more publicity in a minute than the chamber of commerce could in a year,” grumbled Walter, dismissing, with one well-crafted quip, the man who was America’s most populist poet, Lincoln’s most prolific biographer, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the owner of a prizewinning goat-dairy herd.
Walter Smith was not a common man. He wasn’t just an individualist or an eccentric. He was born to be seen and heard. When not handing out orchids to the ladies, he’d pin one on the seat of his pants and saunter down Main Street. He liked to pull a dog chain behind him that was not connected to any dog.
When Jane Wyman (then married to Ronald Reagan) came to town to promote the sale of WWII war bonds, Walter found his way on stage to bestow an enormous corsage upon the actress. To jazz bandleader Jan Garber, he once presented a deed to the lot of the musician’s choice in Laurel Park — a sincere if not legally sound act.
There had been months of speculation about a new industrial plant for a major well-known industry looking at the possibilities of locating in Hendersonville. News sources and those of us working with company representatives were tight-lipped about it. We had been told that a leak could damage the town’s chances. Finally, the day came for the announcement to take place in the ballroom of the Skyland Hotel. I was working with company reps to bring some of their equipment into the ballroom when Walter showed up decked out in his “Sunday Finery” carrying a bouquet of flowers. When he came into full view I noticed that there was a General Electric logo in its center. I felt like wringing his neck, but decided, hopefully, that he would not be noticed. This did not happen. When the time came to open the ballroom doors so invited guests could enter for the company’s announcement there stood Walter with his bouquet in hand welcoming the GE officials and others one by one.
I’ve thought of Walter many times over the years while going from town to town in my career as a chamber-of-commerce executive. It was sort of a game, and a fun one, to try to find another Walter in the towns I served. He might not look the same or say quite the same things, but there was always at least one character in each place that I could dub my Walter Smith, even if the original could only be found back in Hendersonville.