Thursday’s weekly luncheon of the Cleburne Rotary Club played out like an episode of the old “This Is Your Life” TV show with longtime Rotarian Lowell “Stretch” Smith Jr. taking the hot seat to share memories of his life and career and Rotarian Matt Victory subbing in for Ralph Edwards in the interviewer’s role.
Smith discussed atomic bombs, first kisses, German prisoners of war, banking, the importance of giving back and other matters during the interview.
Smith, Victory said, requires no introduction.
“He’s been known as a rancher, banker and philanthropist,” Victory said. “His name is on countless buildings and scholarships and he’s been inducted into numerous halls of fame and the New York Times once profiled and described him as a living legend.”
Smith has been a member of the Cleburne Rotary Club since about 1971.
“Dr. Alex Howard, a dentist in Cleburne some of you might remember, kept on me,” Smith said. “I’d gone to an air show in Paris with a friend, we both used to fly. I told [Howard] that the minute I get back from Paris I will attend Rotary. He said, ‘Well, thank you. We’ve been trying to get you in for a long time and you’ve ignored us.’ I told him I appreciated that, said, ‘I didn’t mean to do that. I’ve just been real busy.’
“Dr. Howard told me that they had already put my name in and it had been approved and it was just a matter of me going. He said, ‘You’ve been approved. You just never have gone.’ I told him, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I’ll try to do a better job.’”
Early on, Smith said it was difficult to get away from work long enough to attend weekly Rotary meetings but worthwhile in the long run.
“Finally I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it,’” Smith said. “I got into Rotary because it’s a sharing with others type organization. Once I got into it I discovered it had so many things that I liked and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to be in Rotary for close to 50 years.”
Meeting attendee Elizabeth Victory asked Smith about his visits to Rotary clubs in other countries and the fact that he always takes a Texas and U.S. flag along on such occasions.
“Anytime I go somewhere else I always try to go to a Rotary meeting if possible, and those were always real interesting,” Smith said.
Smith called his visit to the London Rotary Club especially memorable and shared a humorous memory to another club.
“In one country a man leaned over and said that he had heard that we let women into our Rotary club,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Well, yes, we do and it’s been wonderful and a lot of fun.’ Well, that wasn’t the answer that he wanted to hear and he leaned back over and said, ‘They’ll cause you trouble before it’s all over.’”
Matt Victory next asked about the Cow Pasture Bank, a Rio Vista bank that Smith’s father had a hand in founding.
“That was 1919 after [World War I] and it opened in 1921,” Smith said. “In the 1950s I worked there nights and summers. When I came back from the military I was a bank examiner for a while and then in the late ’50s is when I went to work in the [Cow Pasture Bank].”
Victory asked Smith to name the oddest thing he had ever seen offered as collateral on a loan.
“Oh mercy,” Smith responded. “A lot of things were talked about but we didn’t end up using those. I’d have to think on that one but I know there were some strange things.”
With a runway in the back, the Cow Pasture Bank was most famously known as being possibly the only bank that customers could fly into.
“That was a good thing for us,” Stretch said. “It was a type of banking that you just didn’t see anywhere else. I don’t know of any other banks that wanted to do that, and we got a lot of customers from the Metroplex and locally because of that.”
Smith sold the bank to Wells Fargo in 1999.
Victory asked Smith whether it’s true that he deposited $100,000 of his own money into a then newly-opened competing bank to welcome them to the neighborhood.
“Well, I can’t say that didn’t happen,” Smith joked. “It’s probably something we would’ve done. If we didn’t, we probably just didn’t think about it. Because competition is fine and we wanted it. We just went to work early in the morning and came home real late.”
Victory asked about Smith Ranch, founded by Smith’s great grandfather in 1887 and still going four generations and 130 plus years on.
“It’s expensive to keep up but it’s meant a lot to us through the years,” Smith said. “I’ve always appreciated the ones who went before me there and feel bound in the tradition.”
During World War II, Germans POWs housed at what is now the Cleburne Conference Center were frequently sent out to work the Smith Ranch and other surrounding ranches.
“I was about 12 at the time,” Smith said. “They were nice guys and we all got along pretty well. They were all worried about one thing and that was their families. They didn’t know the status of things back in Germany and so that was the biggest worry they had.”
Only one made a fuss, Smith said.
“The rest said just not to pay any attention to him,” Smith said. “He was the captain of a freighter and not actually in the military. The freighter had been knocked out and they picked him up out of the water. They didn’t know what to do with him so they put him with the enlisted men and that didn’t go very well with him. He was always fussing but we just didn’t pay much attention to him and went on about our business. Once he was in the back end of a trailer and I was driving and I let the clutch slip and it threw him out in the dirt.
“But, I think that was an accident really.”
The nickname, Smith said, came courtesy of fellow baseball player Dick Miller at Cleburne High School.
“Came in fast and stretching out to get a play at first base and I guess that looked a little odd to some people so he started calling me that,” Smith said. “Before I knew it I went home and my father said, ‘Well, we’re calling you Stretch from now on.’”
In answer to a question from Rotarian Tom Hazlewood, Smith discussed being stationed at Area 51 in Nevada and being five miles away from the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
“An awing thing,” Smith said. “It x-rays you and I could see the bones in my hand. It took 48 seconds for the nuclear wave to hit us. You could see it coming, throwing dirt and doing everything.”
Smith said he was born in the Cleburne Sanitorium.
“That’s what the hospital was called back then,” Smith said. “Course, you tell people that now and they take that wrong.”
Attendee Martha Daniels asked Smith when he first kissed a girl.
“Oh mercy,” Smith said. “Really wasn’t prepared for that question, 15 or 16 I guess.”
Smith mentioned a high school girlfriend and later meeting his wife.
“And, you can tell I’m just dodging [the question] here,” Smith joked.
Daniels expressed surprise over the fact that Smith apparently flew airplanes before he first kissed a girl.
“Yes, we had an old plane at the place and would all kind of climb in it and fly around for a while,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we were supposed to be doing all that but we did.”
Smith said he and his wife Shirley started the Mustang Foundation in response to requests from former Cleburne businessman George Marti.
“Anytime we went anywhere George would pin us to ask when we’re going to start a foundation,” Smith said. “Shirley asked me one night driving home what we should do. I said, ‘I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to do it.’ But through the foundation we’ve helped students with scholarships various charities such as Operation Blessing and others.”
That in the end, Smith said, is what it’s all about.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Smith said. “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.”
Glancing at notes Smith brought to the meeting, Victory pointed out that the words strong faith were underlined.
“I think you’ve carried out that strong faith in everything you’ve done,” Victory told Smith. “We appreciate all you’ve done for the community and all the lives you’ve touched.”