SEARCY As a young child, Searcy High School Principal Claude Smith moved around quite a bit, thanks to his father’s profession in construction. As an adult, however, Smith found a place where he could begin a noted career as an educator, and he stayed.
When school began this year, it marked the beginning of Smith’s 37th year in education. He has spent his entire career as an educator in the Searcy School District — 28 years as a band director and eight in school administration.
Growing up in Walnut Ridge, Smith was the oldest of three children. After his father died when Smith was 10, he stepped up and took on a lot of responsibility, helping his mother take care of his 8-year-old sister and 2-year old brother.
“Dad was a construction foreman, and I think I lived in seven states before I was in seventh grade,” Smith said. “I met so many people; it was great.”
Because Smith’s mother grew up in Walnut Ridge, the family settled there after his father’s death.
“She could pinch a penny better than anyone I ever saw,” Smith said about his mother’s ability to continue to be a stay-at-home mom after her husband died. “She also put an emphasis on education. My mother instilled a good work ethic in me. We were typical kids, but we had our responsibilities, too. … I’m very proud of my work ethic. I believe in doing what you’re supposed to do, and do it to the best of your ability.”
Smith graduated from Walnut Ridge High School in 1972 and earned his undergraduate degree from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville in 1976, then his Master of Education degree in 1985. After graduating from Arkansas Tech, he went to work as a junior high band director at Searcy.
In spite of the positive experience Smith said he had moving around so much as a child, after meeting Jeanna, his first wife, now deceased, the couple decided to stay in Searcy to raise their daughter, Nicole Prater. Nicole grew up to follow in her father’s footsteps; she is the junior high band director in the Cabot School District.
Although he can play all the instruments in the band, Smith’s instrument of choice is the French horn.
“It’s a challenging instrument,” he said about the horn, “but you should be able to play all instruments well enough to teach a student to play.”
He said a musical background also helps students do better in math and science.
Just as his high school band director Arlin Jones and college band director Gene Witherspoon had a major influence on Smith’s decision to put his embouchure to work for him, Smith has had the same effect on his students. Several of Smith’s former students now teach instrumental music. One of those students, Tony Luzzi, now serves as the high school’s band director.
“I handpicked Tony Luzzi to take my place as band director,” Smith said about when he took the job as assistant junior high principal at Ahlf Junior High School, where he served for two years. “I taught him from the beginning.”
Luzzi said he was humbled when Smith asked him to leave his position as assistant band director at Lakeside High School in Hot Springs to come back to Searcy.
“Knowing it was a position he had for 28 years and was ready to turn the reins over to someone else was humbling,” said Luzzi, who is in his ninth year as Searcy’s band director. “He did so much to build up the program.”
The bands at Searcy High School received numerous honors during Smith’s tenure. In 2003, Smith was named Arkansas Band Master of the Year.
Smith said he earned his administrator’s degree in 1993, but he decided to wait until he believed it was a good time to move up the educational ladder.
“I felt like it was time for a change,” he said, then explained why he chose to stay in the same school district. “This town is such a great place, and our school is great. Our town puts a high priority on education. The community sets the bar pretty high for education, and we have super leadership from the central office.”
Even though he has begun his seventh year in the principal’s office at the high school, he still ventures into the band hall occasionally to work with the students in Luzzi’s absence. Smith said he misses band directing sometimes.
“It’s rewarding; working with kids is so much fun,” he said. “A teacher told me that the key to staying young is to stay around kids. You don’t try to keep up with them, but you just stay around them.”
Smith laughed and said, “It works. … I love what I’m doing.”
With the rewards comes challenges, and Smith said the biggest challenge he’s had as an educator is seeing students who don’t get the support outside of school that he believes they deserve.
“Mr. Smith was always a hard worker, and he instilled in us to do the best you can, always,” Luzzi said. “I think he is a wonderful educator, and he has done many great things for not only the band profession, but for education in Arkansas.”
Although Smith may love his job, he also loves to play golf and travel. He said he’s been to 38 states and eight countries.
“I like seeing different places and lifestyles and then coming home to Searcy,” he said with a smile.
He and his wife, Stacy, have been married for four years, and they continue to live in Searcy.
“I’ve been extremely blessed twice,” he said about his late wife, Jeanna, and his current wife, Stacy.
He also said he is awaiting his first grandchild, due in January.
Staff writer Jeanni Brosius can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.