Local educational icon dies at 91
A chapter in El Dorado history came to a close on the final day of 2013 with the passing of Marzell Smith at the age of 91. A soft-spoken woman, she impacted the community through her passion for education and other projects. Smith served as a teacher in the community before, after and during the era of integration.
Janis Van Hook, president of the St. Louis Restoration Committee, knew Marzell Smith as a neighbor, church choir director and English teacher.
“I grew up in the neighborhood with her. I never heard her raise her voice,” Van Hook said. “You knew when she was serious. She was always so calm and soft spoken. We are really going to miss her. She was the cornerstone of our neighborhood.
“She was part of our regional restoration. She gave me inspiration and support when I needed it (for the community restoration). She was a very soft spoken person with dynamic words. She was someone I admired for years. She was always so very humble with massive plans. We were so proud when she started the black history museum. She has been a part of young black persons’ lives who went to Washington High School. We did not know what had happened with our trophies. She gathered so much memorabilia. There is no doubt she will be missed.”
Mary Reed, a retired educator, said, “I taught with her at El Dorado High School for a number of years. She was a joy to work with. She impacted a lot of lives in very positive ways. She was a real leader in this community.”
Linda Williams, a former student who later worked with Smith at the museum, wrote, “We have lost one of El Dorado’s greatest historians and humanitarians. Her love for her community and its young people was demonstrated through her untiring work and dedication to the South Arkansas African American Historical Society and the African American History Museum.”
Janice Bush sent the following tribute recalling early lessons from Smith. “‘Janice, hold your head up. Stop talking to your shoes, they cannot speak back. Hold your head up, look forward and speak distinctly.’ That was one of the many character-forming seeds planted in my life by Mrs. Smith.
“Mrs. Smith was my neighbor. I grew up on Kinard Street. She and her family lived on Ouachita. She was much more than a neighbor. She was my Sunday School teacher, elementary school teacher and my first employer (I baby-sat her twins for a while).
“Her legacy was far more significant. Not only was she a role model, she was a person that stimulated and directed young people in her charge. I am sure every life that she touched has a personal story; my story was one of encouragement and inspiration. Growing up she taught me to be dependable and committed to whatever I was assigned to by man, but especially by God. She instilled a genuine love for my culture as an African-American, a thirst for knowledge to the extent that I have a ravenous desire to read and therefore I am a lifelong learner,” Bush said.
“Perhaps her greatest gift to me was a desire to serve and to stand for what I believe. Her life reflected Christian values, dedicated service, strong commitment, unyielding determination and essential sacrifice. She impacted my life in so many ways, this is just a small memory. She has indeed left a legacy and a responsibility for each of us. Her footprints will not fade.”
Laura Cleveland, children’s librarian at Barton Library, said, “Her dignity and passion touched many lives in and out of the classroom. I had the privilege to work with her for three years in high school. She was a woman of great dignity and character. She infused enthusiasm into young people and helped them uncover their myriad of talents.”
El Dorado Alderman Willie McGhee said, “Mrs. Smith was an advocate for education and for people to know their heritage, where we came from and to be more involved and make a difference right where we are. We can make changes in people’s lives if we give a little bit of ourselves. She truly, truly will be missed.”
Nancy Arn, director of the Barton Library, recalled Smith’s years on the library board. “She was a very faithful member and a pleasure to work with. She was very interested in literacy and education in this community. She was an inspiration to many and a very civic-minded woman.”
LaQuita Rainey, owner of Elder House Adult Daycare Center and Complete Home Care said, “One of the first jobs I had as a teenager was at Smith Learning Center. Marzell was the director. I learned a lot working with the kids. When I started Elder House, Marzell and her group used to come at least twice a year, to sing and give things. We always looked forward to them coming. She surely will be missed.”
Born and reared in El Dorado, Smith attended Fairview Elementary School and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. She completed undergraduate degrees in education and English from UCLA and AM&N College in Pine Bluff, respectively, and later earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She also completed coursework at Southern Arkansas University, Henderson State College and Griffin Murphy Business College.
After college, Smith taught at five schools in three communities for nearly 40 years, including the uniquely challenging years of integration during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Smith spent the first 10 years of her teaching career in Lake Village and Warren before returning to El Dorado. She taught for five years at Carver Elementary and another nine at Booker T. Washington High School until integration closed the campus in 1969. After integration, Smith spent her final 14 years as a teacher at El Dorado High School. She retired in 1983, both from the classroom and from her position as English coordinator for District 15, a post she held for seven years.
Smith served in a number of leadership roles in education, including president of the El Dorado Classroom Teachers Organization, secretary of the Arkansas English Council, member of the committee for the selection of English textbooks for the state of Arkansas and advisor to the El Dorado High School Student Council.
Community activities and service projects included the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society, two-time president of the Fairview Social and Art Club, president three times of the Music Coterie, founding member of the Friends of the Barton Library and a member of the First Baptist Church on Cordell.
She instituted the Smith Learning Center, an early learning and child care center. In recent years, Smith founded the South Arkansas African-American History Museum, which is located in the old Carver Building at the corner of Grove Street and North Columbia Avenue.
Her awards and honors included:
• South Arkansas Humanitarian Award (2002)
• Union County Childcare Professional of the Year (1990)
• Black History Person of the Year (1999)
• Classroom Teachers Award for Contributions to Civil Rights and Education (1983)
• Alliance of Concerned Professionals (1984)
• National Association of University Women (1990)
• Searchers Social and Charity, USA (2000)
Her funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church on Cordell. Burial will be in Lott Burgy Cemetery under the direction of Memorial Funeral Home in Farmerville, La.