Roanoke Icon Claude Smith Celebrating 100th Birthday

Mention “Roanoke icons” and you may get mental images of the Roanoke Star, Blue Ridge Parkway, and St. Andrew’s Cathedral. However, there is a living icon celebrating 100 candles on his birthday cake today: local businessman and entrepreneur Claude Smith. He is one of those rare souls about whom it can be said: “You don’t meet Claude Smith; you experience him.”

Smith was born the youngest of eight in Lynchburg on April 28, 1922, during the “Roaring 20s,” when Warren Harding was president. (Harding was the first president elected after all American women had been given the right to vote via the 19th amendment in 1920.) Smith’s father provided for his family of ten by working at the Lynchburg Foundry and by doing some farming on the side. Early on, the youngest Smith realized agriculture was not his calling: “I never liked working with a hoe,” he explained.

Growing up about three decades before air conditioning went mainstream, Smith’s entrepreneurial mind grasped an opportunity, even as a child. With windows open all summer, many Lynchburg homeowners had flies in their houses. So, Smith designed and built small boxes made of wood and screen that he sold door to door and marketed as a way to keep the insects off one’s toothbrush. Thus began a remarkable business career: it started in an age when automobiles and radio were novelties; then went through the atomic, TV, and space ages; and now continues in the internet age. 

Smith entered his teen years in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression and just weeks after the US inaugurated a new president: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tragically, the economic collapse caused his father to lose his job at the foundry. As was common during those hard times when many children had to help their families make ends meet, Smith left school in 7th grade and never went back. However, his incredible life and achievements show there is such a thing as the “self-motivated learner.” Resourceful even early in life and liberated from school, Smith found a new way to use his extra time and also earn some much-needed cash during the Depression: at around the age of 12 or 13, he began driving logging trucks. Too small for the truck cab, he had to stand up in order to push down the pedals while driving. Still too short to see over the dashboard and out the windshield, he had to lean out the side window to see where he was going as he steered. 

He hauled wood in and around the Lynchburg area that was taken to a sawmill where it was cut into stove-sized planks in order to be used for cookstoves and to heat homes. In those pre-OSHA days, the sawing jobs were so dangerous, two of his brothers lost multiple fingers while working around the spinning blades.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor about five months before Smith turned 20, so this young man from Central Virginia had his life changed forever in WWII. He first moved to Newport News to work in the shipyards, and then was drafted into the army and shipped to the Pacific Theater to serve his country and the cause of freedom in that global conflict.

As a new GI, Smith and many others were run through a series of two-minute tests. One by one they were sent into a room, told to observe what items were in there, and then when they came out report on what they had seen, where it was located in the room, etc. Smith demonstrated such a strong memory for detail and spatial relationships, he was chosen for special duty that he calls being a “spy” but today would be dubbed “military intelligence.”

Stationed in the Japanese-occupied Philippine Islands, Smith’s spy duty was lonely and dangerous. He had to leave his own units and, all alone, go forward toward the Japanese positions and observe the numbers and locations of enemy tanks, trucks, units, soldier movements, etc. He was not allowed to write down anything, but instead had to keep all the details in his mind and then make his way back to the US forces and report on what he had observed. Smith mentioned that he also served as a spotter of Japanese aircraft, to identify which kinds of planes he saw flying and where. The crucial intelligence he gleaned gave his superiors valuable information to make their plans for victory.

Unlike the Nazi Germans, who usually treated American Prisoners of War (POWs) with a basic level of care, the wartime Japanese were notorious for their cruel treatment of POWs, as most brutally demonstrated in the unspeakable Bataan Death March. Thankfully, Smith was never taken prisoner.  

Speaking of his wartime memories, Smith recalled, “I didn’t much like marching, so I took every class I could in the army–electronics, radio, and it was the three months of learning Morse Code that damaged my hearing.” As he mentioned “Morse Code,” the 100-year-old cupped both his hands and covered his ears, as if pantomiming the earphones that had sat there way back in the early 1940s. He indicated that, every hour he could spend in a classroom was one less hour he would need to be marching around on a drill field in the hot sun with everybody else.

Serving with distinction, Smith earned the rank of Staff Sergeant. By being in the tropical Philippines, he contracted malaria during the war. However, despite his high fever and critical illness, he still volunteered to climb tall poles in order to set up communication equipment because nobody else in his unit was willing or able to complete those daunting tasks.  Clearly, Smith has never suffered from acrophobia. 

In fact, it was this aspect of his wartime studies and duties involving new technologies that would prove key to his later business successes: radio and electronics.  

Broadcaster Tom Brokaw popularized the term to describe that cohort born in the 1920s who grew up in the double crucibles of the Great Depression and WWII: “The Greatest Generation,” and clearly Smith is a part of that elite group to whom the rest of us owe such a debt of gratitude.

Late summer 1945 found Smith and his buddies on a troopship steaming toward Japan, in preparation for the planned amphibious landings to defeat that Empire and end WWII. As deadly as D-Day had been in 1944, most planners believed the attempted landings in the Japanese home islands would be far more ghastly and bloody. Many “armchair historians” today debate or condemn President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, using lenses from 1945, those two attacks–as horrific as they were–did quickly end the war; liberate China, Korea, and other occupied parts of Asia; and spared countless lives: not only those of Smith and other US GIs preparing to hit the beaches of Japan, but also the Japanese civilians and soldiers who would have inevitably been killed in the fighting. 

After the war ended in 1945, Smith returned home to his native Virginia. Smith was a strapping 27-year old when he moved from Lynchburg to Roanoke in 1949 to take a new job with a pinball machine company, and he has lived here ever since. Speaking of icons, the Roanoke Star was first illuminated in time for the Christmas season of 1949. So, Smith is one of a small and dwindling number of Roanokers who remember our city before the Star was built atop Mill Mountain. That first illumination came just weeks after the Chinese Civil War ended, and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan and communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.  

In the booming post-war 1950s economy, Smith started his own business in 1952. Using his knowledge of electronics gained from his service in WWII, Smith focused on placing jukeboxes and pinball machines in restaurants and places of entertainment. Proverbs 13:11a (NIV) says, “whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.” By focusing on coin-operated devices, Smith literally built his empire one coin at a time, from people’s loose change. And with the post-war Baby Boom and soon-to-start Rock and Roll Age, he hit the demographic trend right on the nose: lots of kids and teens wanting to play pinball games or hear the latest hits from Frank Sinatra or Buddy Holly.

He bought State Amusement soon thereafter and kept the name ever since. When he began his company in 1952, he had about twelve competitors in the Roanoke Valley. However, with the skill of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie, he gradually bought them out one by one, until he was the sole operator left in the region.

Seventy years later, Smith still owns State Amusement Company.

Smith and his first wife had a son, Kenneth, who has been a practicing dentist in the Roanoke Valley since 1977. When asked if he plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and keep working till age 100, he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

As Smith built his Roanoke-based business, his wife kept the books. “She was never late paying any bills,” he confided, “and she never fussed at me when I bought a boat, travel trailer, or airplane.” Moreover, speaking in an almost reverential tone, he remarked: “we never argued or even raised our voices at each other, and we were married for 56 years. That’s kind of incredible.” After more than a half-century of marriage, Smith’s first wife passed away, and he has since remarried.

In addition to State Amusement Company, Smith has demonstrated entrepreneurship by acquiring an impressive rental portfolio as well. He once remarked that he had a Eureka moment when he realized he could buy a property, rent it out, use that rental income to pay the mortgage, and repeat. Moreover, by placing pinball machines in his properties, that generated an additional income stream as well. 

Despite his amazing work ethic and success, Smith knows how to play. He earned his pilot’s license. He loved flying, but had to give up his license due to his age. Several times he flew as far as Jamaica, which required flying in and around the airspace of communist Cuba. Over the years he shared his flying knowledge and plane with candidates barnstorming across Virginia during election seasons. That hobby and service opened many doors into many politicians’ inner circles. 

Claude Smith with Elizabeth Taylor
Claude Smith with Elizabeth Taylor, c. 1980

Not one to burn bridges, Smith has served both Democrats and Republicans. Smith proudly owns numerous photographs of him with big-name Old Dominion politicians he helped over the years, including a photo with Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Taylor, who had been married to Virginia’s US Senator John Warner. Smith had flown Warner and Taylor to speaking and fundraising events across the state.

Furthermore, Smith has a large collection of “Keys to the City” given him by Roanoke leaders over the decades. Smith has personally known every Roanoke mayor since Roy Webber, who first became mayor in the eventful year 1949. (Route 220 from the Elm Ave./Rt. 24 exit to the Rt. 419 exit is called the Roy L. Webber Expressway in his honor.)

A Baptist, Smith takes seriously the biblical command to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13b). Over many decades he has invited church youth groups, Sunday school classes, and other ministries to come over for pool parties and meals. 

The Smiths with President Gerald Ford (R) and Rep. William Wampler (L). c. mid-1970s
The Smiths with President Gerald Ford (R) and Rep. William Wampler (L), c. mid-1970s

At such gatherings, Smith loves to show his guests some new mechanical gadget he invented or regale them with stories of the latest high tower or pole he had climbed. He seems the living embodiment of the George Bernard Shaw quote:  “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Smith remains remarkably physically and mentally spry. He and his wife surprised this writer and his wife in the spring of 2021. Despite the panic induced by Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns, the Smiths were at the Lowe’s garden shop, looking for tomato plants.  How many 99-year-olds do you know, period? Moreover, how often do you see a 99-year-old at Lowe’s, shopping for plants for the summer garden?

That seems to be one of the hallmarks and secrets of Smith’s longevity: he is always looking forward, with a sense of expectation and positivity. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar was in his 80s and still giving public appearances across the country. Speaking of his future-oriented mindset, Ziglar liked to quip, “I’m still buying green bananas.” At 99, Smith was still buying tomato plants.

At 100, Smith still gets around without a cane or walker. He attributes much of his longevity to a lifetime of physical activity. “I played all kinds of sports when I was younger, and especially liked dancing and skating. I used to spend lots of time dancing and skating. Plus, I’ve always liked snow skiing and waterskiing.” In addition to his varied interests in sports, flying, and business, Smith has also earned international certification as a magician.

Along with a lifetime of physical activity, Smith is obviously blessed with great genes. His oldest sister made it to 105. Smith attributes his full head of hair and his inability to ever grow a beard or mustache to the fact that his maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee. “You never see a bald Indian or one with a beard,” he explained.

When it comes to giving advice to young people — and for a 100-year-old, most everyone left is younger–he suggests: watch your health, work hard, and be loved and love others.

When I asked Smith’s wife at what age he stopped going into his office so that could be shared in this story, she reported: “He actually is still going in to his office now.”

In fact, Smith and his family enjoyed a series of five birthday get-togethers over this week. He said that on Friday, the day after his birthday, he planned to stay home to rest up after the long series of galas. However, he indicated that come next Monday, he will be back at work again checking on things.

Family psychologists claim one’s birth order can have a profound effect on one’s personality and path in life. The “baby of the family” is often seen as confident, creative, highly social, and willing to carve out a life different from that of his or her older siblings. It may sound odd calling a hundred-year-old the “baby of the family,” but no doubt this youngest of eight has made a lifetime of grabbing life by the throat and, by following a unique path, is a living example of the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”

(Interestingly, that famous poem written in 1915 was itself only seven years old when Smith was born.)

Claude Smith. To his long list of accomplishments such as member of the Greatest Generation, WWII GI, husband, father, community leader, pilot, magician, athlete, businessman and entrepreneur, he can now add one more remarkable achievement: centenarian.

Claude Smith at 100 birthday party
Claude Smith living life at his 100th birthday party

–Scott Dreyer

Note: This story has been expanded on 4-29 and 5-2-2022.

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