The Times-Review is saddened to report the passing of Rio Vista businessman Lowell “Stretch” Smith Jr. on Sunday morning at the age of 88.
“Oh no,” Johnson County Commissioner Larry Woolley said, in obvious shock and sadness upon hearing the news.
Commissioner Rick Bailey reacted much the same.
“I think the whole county just needs to take one big, deep sigh and remember Stretch because we’re losing all our good ones,” Bailey said. “I guarantee you I can think of anybody who’s done more or is more loved and appreciated than Stretch Smith.”
Smith formerly ran and owned Rio Vista’s Cow Pasture Bank, a bank his father had a hand in founding. Smith played instrumental roles in the founding of what is now the Johnson County Emergency Services District No. 1 and Cleburne’s HOPE Clinic, among other things.
Through the Mustang Foundation, Smith helped many through scholarships and other financial grants. Members of Rio Vista’s Nolands River Masonic Lodge No. 453 in July honored Smith’s 65 years of membership with the lodge, a lodge Smith’s great-grandfather helped found.
In recent months the Boy Scouts of America and the Cleburne Rotary Club, of which Smith was a longtime member, also staged programs honoring Smith.
Smith, during the Rotary program, explained that his nickname stems from his high school baseball days and went on to discuss his banking and military careers, the Smith Ranch, which dates from 1887 and working with German POWs housed in Cleburne during World War II. Smith also discussed the Mustang Foundation.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Smith said at the time. “And because of that wanted a place where we could start helping people. Of course at the bank we made loans and things that helped people, but that was a business. And I’ve always felt that if you’ve been fortunate then you can share. And so, my wife and I started the foundation to make sharing part of our lives.”
A list of Smith’s accomplishments both in Johnson County and beyond could fill a book, Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon said.
“You couldn’t even begin to start naming all the wonderful things Stretch did for our community,” Harmon said. “He was one of the premiere men of this community.
“On top of that, Stretch was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. I can’t remember ever seeing him really riled up. He always kept a level profile and just wanted to help make things better for the people and he was certainly a leader in that. You always felt better after you talked to Stretch. Just a real fine, high character man.”
Smith’s bank, Harmon said, loaned Harmon money to start his insurance business. Something very much in character with Smith and his family.
“My dad thought the Cow Pasture Bank was the only bank in the world,” Woolley said. “My daddy banked with Stretch’s daddy and then later with Stretch.
“My dad was a rancher and that bank was the only bank that would loan my dad some money to buy a particular group of cattle to get started. Nobody else would give him the time of day but the Smith family did, and Stretch was a part of that. So they’ve always been pretty special to my family.”
Woolley recalled visiting the Cow Pasture Bank as a child with his father.
“I thought it was the coolest place ever,” Woolley said. “But Stretch has done so many things, he’s such a philanthropist and just helped so many in Johnson County and beyond for so many years and did so many great things.”
Like Harmon, Woolley said Smith’s character stood out.
“Stretch was such a prince of a guy,” Woolley said. “Just one of the old school guys who was such a gentleman, a legendary man and was just so nice to so many people. Johnson County will definitely miss him.”
“What a tremendous loss for Cleburne, the county and for that matter the world this is,” Bailey said. “There aren’t many you can say that about but this is definitely a lesser place without Stretch.”
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said Smith had a profound impact on many and characterized him as larger than life.
“Stretch was that person for Cleburne and the whole state,” Cain said. “When I think of what it means to be the ultimate Texan, I think of Stretch.
“There are businesses today that would have never began if it weren’t for Stretch believing in the owner and giving them a chance. So many students were educated because of Stretch and our whole community was touched by his generosity and service.”
Cain said he considered Smith a friend as well as an example of the right way to conduct business and public service.
“He was always there for me to bounce ideas off of and he was always an encourager when I was down,” Cain said. “I met with Stretch before I first ran for mayor and asked what he thought about some of my ideas. He asked why in the world I’d want to hear from an old man like him. My thought was, ‘Because you are Stretch Smith and no one knows and loves our community better than you.’
“Today we lost the consummate gentleman and the very best our community has ever seen. I am sad that we now live in a world that does not include Stretch Smith, but am grateful to have known him.”
The flag at Lowell Smith Jr. Middle School will fly at half mast today in honor of Smith, Cleburne ISD Community Services Director Lisa Magers said. CISD board of trustees in 2007 voted unanimously to rename the former Cleburne Middle School after Smith.
“Mr. Smith never hesitates to step up to a cause, no matter what it is, and has provided numerous scholarships and so many opportunities for our students and graduates,” CISD board President Donna Boles said at the time.
A Cleburne High School graduate himself, Smith was the first to be honored by the Ex-Students Association by induction into the CHS Wall of Fame. Smith also served as a member of CISD’s board of trustees.
“It is difficult to put into words the impact that Mr. Smith had on our school community,” Lowell Smith Jr. Middle School Principal Amber White said. “He is one of the most selfless people I have had the pleasure of meeting and his love for the community of Cleburne was as big as his heart. His generosity provided opportunities for our students that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, as well as providing to meet the most basic needs of so many of our students.
“He blessed many with his humility, and his telling of stories will be something that I personally will miss about Mr. Smith. As principal, I could not be more honored to have the name Lowell Smith Jr. on front of the building to help continue his legacy.”
CISD Superintendent Kyle Heath agreed.
“One of the first days after I was hired, I was taken to lunch at Susannah’s,” Heath said. “Stretch was also there having lunch and I was introduced to him as the new superintendent. When we got ready to leave, we were informed that he had paid for our lunch. He was such a caring person, who thought the world of this community and the people who live here.
“Stretch was very committed to education and our school district, students and teachers. He was very excited about the community’s investment n the new high school and our Career and Technical Education program. He was such a great man and we will all miss him.”
Former Smith Middle School Principal Bill Allen praised Smith’s support of students.
“He and Mrs. Smith served as student mentors at our campus — she for two years, he for three,” Allen said. “It was very beneficial for those students who got to spend extra time with him. We were all thrilled, students and staff, when he came to special events at our campus.
“On a personal note, I got to know him as a friend at school and church. His presence in our community was larger than life, yet he never acted that way. He treated everyone the same, with kindness and respect, regardless of who they were or their station in life. We will definitely miss him.”
Rio Vista resident Tony Cashion echoed Bailey’s sentiments.
“I always thought Mr. Smith was a great man and I know everyone around here feels the same,” Cashion said. “I got to know him pretty well over the last five, six years. We talked often and just a good guy. He called about a week and a half ago and we talked for a while and I’m glad of that. He’s one of the last of that era and going to be much missed. I always loved and enjoyed visiting with him and, what hits me most, is that he was always the same guy every time you saw him, very sincere and didn’t change from person to person.”
Cashion said his grandfather banked at Smith’s bank for years.
“When I started out in business Stretch was the only one who would loan me any money,” Cashion said.
Cashion, also a Rio Vista lodge member, said he and fellow lodge members were honored and thrilled to present Smith his 65 year pin earlier this summer.
“We all loved being able to put that ceremony together and I know Mr. Smith really enjoyed it too,” Cashion said. “His family started that lodge and went to get the charter for it. Beyond the lodge, there’s no telling how many countless people Mr. Smith has helped over the years.”
Former Cleburne Mayor Tom Hazlewood worked with and called Smith a friend for decades.
“Stretch’s family has been here more than 100 years and helped build and hold this city together,” Hazlewood said. “He’s a magnificent gentleman who will really be missed. We’re running out of them, unfortunately.”
Cleburne artist and Red Horse Gallery owner Yuri Trushin spoke during the Aug. 24 Rotary luncheon during which he praised and afterward visited with Smith.
“This is such sad news learning of Stretch Smith’s passing today,” Trushin said. “He was an amazing person, hardworking, friendly and humble. He appreciated art and was so glad to hear that I opened the gallery in downtown Cleburne.
“He told me he would love to come by soon and check it out. I will definitely set up an exposition in his honor soon.”
A memorial service will be held at noon Friday at The Heights Church, 1315 Grandview Highway in Cleburne. Visitation is from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Rosser Funeral Home.