Nearly half a century ago, across Ozark Mountain country in northwestern Arkansas, Whitey Smith won a reputation as a fine high school football tackle. When he graduated from Rogers High School in 1956, he guessed if anyone ever linked his name to school athletics, the chief memory would be how he once intercepted a pass to score a big touchdown against Siloam Springs.
Wrong. What Whitey’s done for Rogers Mountaineers athletics off the field the last 40 years has far eclipsed his on-field feats. It seems everyone in Rogers holds memories of Whitey raising dollars for youth sports—$1 million by some estimates. Some also recall Whitey showing up with watermelon after hot practices, running the game clocks for both football and basketball, keeping score books, and offering student athletes both encouragement and jobs.
“You could always say, ‘Hey, Whitey, I’m out of school for a couple weeks, so could I work for you?’” recalls Harold Callaway, a former Rogers athlete, now a local auctioneer.
As owner of Ozark Fence Co., Whitey can keep employee hours flexible. Too often, he says, kids must choose between jobs they need and sports they love. Whitey makes certain no one has to miss practices or games.
And anyone who’s worked for Whitey won’t be forgotten. Earlier this year, when Callaway’s son was seriously injured in a car crash, Whitey organized a chicken barbecue and raised more than $7,000 for medical expenses.
Rogers is a town that gets behind such efforts, Whitey says. “We don’t have any one big company that contributes everything, so people chip in,” he says. “The town’s grown a lot over the years, and we seem to be breaking in the newcomers right, because they chip in, too.”
Rogers has, indeed, grown. When Whitey, born in Texas, moved to town with his family in third-grade just after World War II, its population was slightly less than 2,000, he says. Rogers has since grown to nearly 40,000 residents, drawn by recreational development along man-made Beaver Lake and by an Ozark lifestyle attractive to budding companies and retirees. Some places experiencing that kind of population influx lose a sense of being a personal, caring community. That’s not the case in Rogers, folks say, and Whitey Smith’s example of giving has something to do with it.
A big part of their lives
Growing from a small town to a small city can hurt interest in school athletics, notes Barney Hayes, former Rogers track coach and football assistant coach. “Back in Whitey’s playing days, there wasn’t a lot to do in Rogers, so the big thing was going to high school games. Now there’s more competition for people’s time,” Hayes says.
There’s also more to divert students’ attention away from school activities, Whitey adds. The fact that so many kids have cars and travel far and wide after school can be a problem, he says. But he works so hard for athletics because he doesn’t want anyone—players or fans—to miss the thrills the games have provided him over the years: a 1957 state boys’ basketball championship, the 1978 football team’s perfect regular season record, and the girls’ fast pitch softball team’s state championship in 2000. Whitey admits some prejudice here; his son, Tim, was wingback on the ’78 football squad, and granddaughter Jaclyn played first base on the champion softball team.
“Of course, you’ve got kids who don’t play sports, and they should get help for what they enjoy,” Whitey says. “So we’ve done fund-raising for Boy Scouts, band, and other things. We just consider kids, whatever they do, to be a big part of our lives.”
When Whitey says “we,” he’s usually referring to Janice, his wife of “40-some years.” The two met—where else?—in the halls of Rogers High School as students. Their son and daughter both live in Rogers, as well as three grandchildren. Having a second and third generation living in your town certainly makes you care about the community’s well being and its future, Whitey says.
‘Short on words, long on work’
Whitey turns 65 this month, but for him the age some people associate with retirement holds little significance. He doesn’t see himself slowing down in his fund-raising efforts. This past summer he worked to create a new Quarterback Club, which will secure money for football, including stadium improvements beyond the school district’s budget. And he stresses that simply being present at games is as important as any other type of support. Since his graduation, he guesses he’s missed no more than a dozen Mountaineer football games, both home and away. About the only thing he allows to interfere with Rogers football is an occasional fishing trip.
Whatever the fledgling Quarterback Club does, friends say, it’s a sure bet there won’t be any smooth-talking pressure to contribute, or any glad-handing, on Whitey’s part. That’s not his style. “He’s short on words and long on work,” Hayes says.
Nothing illustrates that approach better than Whitey’s chicken barbecues, which draw people from far beyond Rogers. “Whitey’s regionally known for his chicken,” Hayes says. That’s a tall compliment in a state where poultry’s a key industry.
Whitey gets lots of help on those barbecues, however. A lumber company lets him use a site where a 47-foot-long concrete-block pit has been set up. Kids who are benefiting usually handle sales, a local Optimist Club chapter arranges insurance, and a crew of volunteer cooks shows up time after time. But it’s Whitey, the others say, who makes it happen, who sometimes arrives before dawn to prepare.
“We’ve cooked a lot of chicken halves,” Whitey says. “We’ll do barbecues eight or 10 times a year, usually about 500 halves each time. Once, though, we cooked somewhere between 1,600 and 1,800 halves.”
Such commitment to Rogers High frequently reminds Callaway how Whitey has touched his—and others’—lives.
“For me, high school was a special time,” Callaway says. “It’s sad to talk to adults who remember those years as difficult. If you’re working, like Whitey, to make those years good for kids, that’s a great service.”
“If we’re to look for a lesson here,” says Bill Stringer, Rogers High principal, “it’s that you don’t have to wait to become wealthy before you make a significant financial contribution to your community. Whitey’s not a wealthy man, but he’ll organize an event that raises $400 one weekend and maybe $400 the next weekend, and over the years it has added up to something really substantial.”
Ask people around Rogers if they know him, and the reply is almost always, “Everybody knows Whitey.” He was inducted into the Rogers Mountaineers Hall of Fame in 1999. The same year the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association honored him, which, to his delight, meant a $15,000 contribution from the association to Rogers athletics.
There are other rewards, too. “It’s something to help a kid,” Whitey says, “and then to have that kid come back maybe 15 years later and tell you, ‘Thanks, you made a difference.’”