TENNILLE, Ga. — Longtime Washington County Sheriff Thomas H. Smith was laid to rest Thursday afternoon, but not before friends and pastors remembered him as a kind man who loved the people of Washington County.
Funeral services were held at Tennille United Methodist Church where the small church was filled, including Sunday School classrooms and the fellowship area.
Accommodations were made at area churches to livestream the service. A livestream of the service also was viewed in the gym of Washington County High School. The majority of cit and county government operations were shut down for the day in remembrance of Smith, who served as the county’s chief law enforcement officer for nearly 23 years.
Dozens of sheriffs and other law enforcement officers, including many local and state government leaders, as well as former lawmakers, attended the church service.
One of the first people to arrive for the funeral service was Oscar Davis Jr., a longtime friend.
“I first met Thomas Smith when he was a probation officer,” recalled Davis, a Milledgeville resident. “I know his brother, Allen, and I knew his grandparents. Allen Memorial Drive in Milledgeville is named after them. I’ve known the family all of my life. In fact, my grandfather was a client of Dr. Allen. That’s how I knew the family.”
Davis said when Smith decided to run for sheriff he helped him with his campaign.
“He was a fantastic man; a great person and he had a great sense of humor,” Davis said. “And he cared about people. That’s one of the biggest things I can say about Thomas is that he cared about people. He was very sincere.”
Davis said the 58-year-old Smith, who died last Saturday, genuinely cared about all of the people of Washington County.
“We talked from time to time on the phone or see one another when I was in Sandersville,” Davis said. “He always had time to talk with me. He was a swell man.”
Asked what he was going to remember most about his longtime friend, Davis quickly responded.
“His sympathy for people and his dignity and respect for mankind,” Davis said, noting that Smith was a wonderful sheriff who always tried to do the right thing and to be as fair as he could be in any situation. “He was always a dear friend to me and my family. His mother, Miss Betty, was a remarkable lady, too.”
The Rev. Randall Smith welcomed everyone who came to the church service to remember, honor and to celebrate Smith’s life. He described Smith as a brother and a friend.
“We are gathered here to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Thomas, and what he meant to so many,” Smith said. “We come together, yes, in grief, acknowledging our human loss.”
He asked that God grant everyone there grace to attain comfort in sorrow and hope, and in death, the resurrection.
“We all find ourselves in this day at some point along our life’s journey, and we might ask how do we find comfort in days like today,” Smith said.
He then quoted the biblical scripture, John 3:16.
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son that whomever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” Smith said. “It is in this promise that we find our hope for today. It is in this promise that Thomas found his hope in his life’s journey so many years ago.”
O. Wendell Horne III, of Macon, a longtime friend of the late sheriff, provided a better insight of the man who wore the badge so proudly and was so deeply dedicated to serving the people of Washington County as sheriff.
Horne said he knew Smith for more than 25 years.
“I feel like I’ve been part of the Smith family since the 1970s,” Horne said. “To see what we’ve seen yesterday afternoon and today is just a tribute to a great man that we will sorely miss. I understand that there were over 2,700 people that signed the book (Wednesday) afternoon, and they had to turn them away at that point and time.”
Horne said it was overwhelming to see the number of sheriffs and other law enforcement officers, along with judges, senators and politicians who had turned out to remember Smith.
“But what Thomas would be most proud of if he were here today is just the regular folks that have come, turned out to pay tribute to such a caring, caring man,” Horne said. “I understand that Thomas, since the age of 8, wanted to be in law enforcement.”
Horne said while talking with Bob Childre on Wednesday, he shared with him a story that he thought was very fitting of Thomas Smith.
“It tells you all you needed to know about him,” Horne said. “He said, the Smith boys grew up in Tennille and I grew up with them. And Lord knows, for a town like Tennille and Washington County to have endured the Smith boys growing up, it was enough to drive Miss Betty crazy. I don’t see how she survived and wasn’t put in an early grave. She lived a long, long time and Lord knows, Thomas loved his mother. She was the apple of his eye.”
Horne shared more of the story that was shared with him by Childre, owner of a local car and truck dealership.
He explained that it was a tradition in the Smith household that when each of the boys turned 16, they all got to go down the car lot and pick out a car of their choice.
“So, here comes Charles, the oldest,” Horne said. “He picks out a ’69 Camaro. And then, here comes Allen. Allen picks out a Corvette. And then here comes, right behind him, Burton. Burton toned it down a little bit and got a Blazer. And the last one to come along is Thomas. And he picks out a blue Chevette.”
Horne said he understood that Thomas had all kinds of radios installed in it from CBs to police scanners and antennas.
“He was keeping up with everybody,” Horne said of his close friend. “And I think his handle was Hobo. Now, I referred to him as Boss Hogg. And to him, I was Boss. And that was the way we referred to each other. That speaks to Thomas. He was probably the least materialistic person that I’ve ever known in my life. He was here for everybody. He was meant to serve. And of course, you can’t talk about Thomas without his positive attitude and smile.”
Horne also reflected on what Thomas Smith endured for many years.
“That was the Guillian-Barre (Syndrome) that he was afflicted with back in 1991,” Horne said. “And that was when I first met Thomas.”
Horne said he visited Thomas at the Shepherd Spinal Center.
“He was there for nine months and on a ventilator for five of those months, only able to blink his eyes,” Horne said. “He told a story about overhearing some nurses that didn’t know he could hear them say, ‘That bed is going to be available shortly.’”
The road to his recovery was a long one.
He underwent more than 20 surgeries for various issues. He had to have his legs braced.
“And that’s what he looked forward to every day for the rest of his life,” Horne said. “But what did we see when we saw Thomas, just a smile, an attitude of what can I do to help you. There are a few words to sum up Thomas and that is: What can I do to help you? If you need me, give me a call. I ended every conversation I think I ever had with Thomas with those words — call me if you need me.”
After his release from Shepherd Spinal Center, Smith was on disability for several years.
Nevertheless, Horne said his friend had a burning desire to serve and become the sheriff of Washington County.
Smith worked and worked to gain his strength and made a statement once that when he could lay down his cane, he was going to run for sheriff, Horne said.
“And that’s what he did,” Horne added. “He ran for sheriff in 1996 and took office in 1997.”
The Rev. Henry Tanner also talked fondly of his longtime friend and so did the Rev. Quint Shepherd.
“I thank God for Thomas being in my life,” Tanner said.
He then talked about what it’s like to have a friend — not just a so-called friend, but a real friend.
“I remember when I was going through stomach cancer,” Tanner said. “I remember sitting in the den and beside me as I laid in a sofa chair all night long, a friend. You can’t find a friend — a friend. I’m talking about a friend — you can’t find a friend every day. You have people that say they are friends, but I’m talking about a friend — a friend that showed us the way to go.”
Smith was the kind of man who put his arms around you and hugged you, Tanner said.
Tanner said he realizes that someday he is going to see Thomas again so he can let him know how much he appreciated his friendship while on Earth.
He thanked God for sending Smith, whom he described as “a solider that understood. He was there for every one of us.”
Shepherd, meanwhile, said Smith was the kind of man who would do anything he could do for anybody.
“He was very, very caring in that respect,” Shepherd said, as he closed with a reading of scripture from the Book of Revelation and telling those in attendance that if there was one thing for real and faithful today, it’s the word of God.
Burial was later held in Zeta Cemetery, just a short distance away from the church. A large crowd attended that service as well.