A man sits in a recliner, posing for a photo
Owen Smith of Springfield is shown in May 2023. (Photo: Kaitlyn McConnell)

This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell. Of these stories, “Legacy Ozarkers” is a place where we learn about — and from — residents with deep roots in the region. Individuals featured in this column are either 80 years old or greater, or have lived in the Ozarks for generations. Stories have been condensed for length and continuity, and are presented primarily in the interviewee’s own words. Please send an email to Kaitlyn@OzarksAlive.com if you know of someone who would be good to consider as a feature.

From a child stricken by polio to seeing the effect of electricity to surviving a tornado to becoming a leader in public health, Owen Smith has lived changing history. 

The 83-year-old grew up in the tiny Carter County community of Fremont, the sixth child in a farming family and the son of the local postmaster. After leaving home, he pursued a college education, met his future wife in Springfield and began a career in the Social Security Administration — before being recruited to public health in a time of evolving support and services for local patients. 

Smith ultimately held statewide influence on public health across Missouri before retiring to Springfield, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and remains active in work at King’s Way United Methodist Church. 

“I was the sixth boy born in Fremont, Missouri, on a farm where I lived until I left for college. Born in that house. It was just me and Mama there. 

“Dad grew up in Grandin, Missouri, over east. Mom was from Olden, which I’m not sure is even on a map anymore. They married and basically lived around Fremont all the time. 

“There was a railroad switch tie yard and there were a lot of sawmills around. The Frisco had a tie garden; there were stacks of ties. That was big. There were two stores. Three churches. And basically, that was the (town). 

“Dad was a schoolteacher for a while. Former Congressman A.S.J. Carnahan — you probably remember the name, he was the former governor’s dad — he and Dad taught school at Fremont. And then after he got to be congressman, the post office job in Fremont opened. In those days, it was not Civil Service. It was an appointed job. So Congressman Carnahan called Dad, a former teacher buddy, and wondered, ‘Would you like to go to work for the post office?’ So he went in as postmaster, I believe in ’34 or ’35. 

“The post office was in a store. Then a Fremont bank closed, and he bought the bank building and moved the post office to the bank. The post office is still in that building.

“I literally grew up in the post office — meaning Mom was clerk, he was postmaster, and I went to the post office where I slept in the basket. Then as I got bigger … I took my little boy naps on the mail sacks in the back room of the post office. 

“We had some combination mailboxes in there, and the rest of the general delivery. There was no personal delivery; there were mail routes through the country, but in town there was no delivery. So everybody was at the post office every day to check their mail instead of going to their mailbox out front. It was the center of attention.

“Everybody in Fremont and all the way around there became almost like family. I grew up with that environment so that I knew everybody and everybody knew me.”

The family also owned a farm, a place where Smith worked from a young age — and where he began driving a tractor around age 8. 

“We had about a 100-acre farm. Over a period of time, we had eight dairy cows. We milked every day, hand milked. This was interesting — we’d take the milk, strain it, cool it, put it in five or ten-gallon cans and sell milk to the school. That’s what school kids drank — raw milk from the farm. Not pasteurized, not homogenized, but raw milk from the farm. Every morning we’d take it out of the refrigerator, put it in cans, and take it to school.”

One day, when Smith was about 10 years old, a moment would dramatically change his life: He got polio. To this day, he still doesn’t know exactly where he contracted the illness, as no one else in town had obvious signs of disease. 

It was years prior to Dr. Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine, a time when waves of polio — a disease that could cause paralysis or even death — brought fear to the hearts of families across the country. 

“It was more like a cold or flu-like thing, and then when I woke up in the morning, my head would be drawn back and I couldn’t bring my chin down. 

“The first two days, the doctor said, ‘It’s just a crick in his neck.’ They finally ran a spinal tap and found differently. That was at Poplar Bluff, and then they immediately transferred me — because they closed their polio unit — and they sent me to Cape Girardeau to the polio unit. 

“I stayed there basically a month; it was short term and did well. 

“I had it mostly in the shoulders. One morning before daylight, the doctor was waking me up. Measuring all around. He handmade a brace at their shop in the hospital to get what he wanted. He used tubing to make it and then wrapped it … it came up under my arms and held them out of the way.”

The disease also affected Smith’s ability to walk, which he couldn’t do when he went home. Without physical therapy as an option near their rural Ozarks community, Smith’s father worked to help his son regain skills, aided by about an hour of instruction before they left the hospital. 

“I didn’t have this feeling (of wondering what would happen). I was just going home. But I’m sure Mom and Dad did. We’ve talked a little about it — It was just one of those things: They took me home, took care of me, to see what we could do. They were people of great faith and they said, ‘We’re just going home to take care of him.’ 

“They gave Dad a couple of hours of instruction on how to give me exercises, physical therapy exercises, because there was no therapist in the area. He did that every day. Morning and evening. 

“When I got out of the hospital, got home and had a hospital bed in the living room, I could not crawl on my hands and knees. He put his hands under my stomach to hold me up in a crawling position. I had to watch my knees to see which way they were going to go. I couldn’t tell. I could move them, but I had no control. Only by watching I learned to crawl with him, hands under my stomach supporting me.

“I couldn’t stand at all. When I got to where I could crawl without his hands, he set me on the floor, hands under my arms. I was standing there, scared to death not knowing what would happen. I started to move my foot to walk and it might go sideways; I had no idea where it was going. I had to slide it and watch it to see if it was going the right direction to learn to move it the right away. 

“I literally learned to crawl like a baby and walk that way. One of the memories is when I was able to walk from our living room to our kitchen on my own. It was a big day.

“When they let me go back to school, it was on the condition that my older brother was still in school. I could sit in the regular classroom seat with a provision that somebody can help me when I had to go to the restroom, and to lunch. That’s the only time I can be out of the seat all day long. 

“He was in high school in the same building, and they rang a bell for breaks and lunch. Almost by the time the bell quit ringing, he was at my door.

“He later became a physician, and I’m not sure but what his taking care of me may have had some indication. He owned and operated a clinic in Willow Springs for over 50 years. There’s no way to explain it; I mean, if I needed him, he was there.”

A major moment in the Ozarks — and as a result, Smith’s life — was the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which helped bring electricity to rural parts of the country. 

“Most houses had a single bulb in the living room. Most people weren’t used to it, so they had that and a pull chain. My uncle did the wiring — he’d gone to St. Louis to train as an electrician — so he wired our house. We had some wall switches as opposed to chains. 

“Boy, I can remember — this sounds so silly — in the bedroom, before we had (electricity) we used oil, kerosene lamps. I turned the lights on and off to see if it really worked at night. 

Smith graduated from high school in 1957. Two days after graduation, a tornado swept through Fremont, destroying a significant portion of the rural community. The new graduate was in town that day at the post office, a reality that ultimately saved the life of another member of the community. 

“When we saw a big cloud and realized what was going on, everybody was headed to the store next door. Instead of going in the post office vault, which would have been the ideal, we went next door.

“We had about two minutes from when the big funnel cloud showed up. From where we were standing, we were almost looking over the school. We could see that funnel cloud over the school, knowing it was coming, watching it come in. That’s when we ran in. 

“It turned out to be a blessing because there was — I’m saying now elderly, but probably my age — gentleman standing on the sidewalk between the buildings frozen. He saw that, he couldn’t move, and he just froze and stood there. All I remember saying was, ‘Lee, come on, we’ve got to get in there.’ 

“In the next two or three days, his son’s family came to thank me. I said, ‘For what?’ Apparently a high school — not a very strong — boy picked him up and carried him in the building.

“I didn’t remember any of that. That’s just what they tell me.”

Smith left Fremont shortly after that to attend college at the University of Missouri-Columbia. That venture lasted just one semester — in part due to the size of the college, which was overwhelming compared to the size of his hometown.

He later moved between jobs and colleges as he earned more money, ultimately landing at today’s Missouri State University. It was during that time when he met Carol Quigg while traveling to a Methodist church conference. 

The two wed in December 1962 and ultimately grew a family of three children. (“I can tell you a story about that,” Carol Smith said of their wedding. “We were going to get married in March between terms. In March, that Sunday fell on St. Patrick’s Day. And he said if I didn’t wear a green wedding dress, he would pinch me in front of God and everybody. Well, my mother would come back up and dragged me out of there if I’d worn a green wedding dress. So we moved it to December.”)

Smith also graduated from college in 1963 with a degree in sociology. Before he had a chance to secure a job, one of his professors connected him with a recruiter for the Social Security Administration and suggested he be considered for a job. A high score on the federal service entrance exam led him to a post in Moberly. 

The first assignment led to a series of others, taking the Smiths to a few stops across the region, including Springfield and Independence — both Kansas, and then Missouri. 

“We decided we’d just throw our hat in the ring every time wherever and get our promotions out of the way before kids got in school. And it worked out real well. We moved from here to Independence, Kansas. Then I got a promotion — it was a real good job, I really didn’t want to leave there, but I kept putting my hat in and got another one and went to Independence, Missouri. (“That was fun trying to get the mail straight,” Carol added.) 

“Then to Sedalia — I went to Sedalia as assistant manager of that office, and in the meantime, the manager had a severe heart attack. They weren’t hiring for his job at the time, so I did both for six months. Then the manager job opened and I got promoted there.”

The Smiths lived in Sedalia for 25 years. After he retired from the Social Security Administration in the late 1980s, he tried another job for a short time before being approached for a job he didn’t expect — and with some hesitation, accepted the job as administrator of the Pettis County Health Department. 

“A lady from the county public health agency called — ‘They’re interviewing for the administrator for the health center here. And I talked them out of hiring until they can talk to you.’ 

“I said, ‘I can’t even spell public health.’

“She said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got nurses, we got everything medical covered, we need an administrator, somebody with administrative experience, which you have through Social Security. You’ve just got to talk to them.’” 

He ultimately accepted the job. 

“Less than a week later, (a contact with the job) called back and said, ‘I just found out they’re having a new orientation class for new administrators. They only do this once every two years. This is scheduled, and I talked to our district administrator. Can you start work Monday at Jeff City?’ 

“So I went to Jeff City. They opened up and they said, ‘Introduce yourself and tell how long you have been with public health.’

“They got to me, and I said, ‘My name is Owen Smith and right now, 15 minutes.’ Everybody about cracked up. That started from there, and I spent five years as the public health administrator in Pettis County.”

One of Smith’s significant efforts while on the job was leading the construction of a new facility for the department, which had outgrown its previous home. A donor agreed to pay for the construction of a building, as long as he could provide the land and furnish the facility.

“When I went to work at Pettis County, the doctor who was board chair said, ‘Owen, we need two things. I just want you to do two things. First off, we have to have publicity, because we need people to know what we do. And we don’t have good publicity. 

“Well, I had done all sorts of radio, five-minute radio programs every week with Social Security. And he said that we needed a building.’ 

“I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ 

“He said, ‘We are out of space; we need a new place.’”

The call to action came to fruition: Smith ultimately led the effort to build a half-million-dollar facility, which was donated for the cause. He also worked to help have furniture donated and raised funding for equipment. 

“It was a half-million-dollar building then. It was totally donated, and then the community, we had to raise $100,000 for equipment. We started out with just contacting all the civic agencies and businesses. 

“I had good name recognition because of the publicity from Social Security’s radio program. I had been United Way campaign director one year, and then the next year was chairman, and our campaign manager moved because of his job right before the campaign, so I wound up being both. I had two years and a lot of publicity from that; we kind of relied on that and contacted people. We got enough furniture donated.” 

One day, he went on the radio and shared that they were seeking funds to help furnish individual treatment rooms, which cost about $2,500 at the time. 

“I hardly got back to the office until the phone was ringing. This lady said, ‘I was the very first public health nurse in Pettis County. If you put my name on Door One, I’ll pay for it.’ And it just kept going. We moved in with the building paid for and rooms all furnished, debt-free.”

There was a level of community spirit among patients, too, for the health center that primarily provided services to disadvantaged populations. One of Smith’s favorite programs was the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Commonly referred to as WIC, the program helped provide food vouchers for low-income families.

Before the new clinic was complete, Smith took an empty large water container and placed it in the reception area of the old facility in case anyone wished to donate change for the cause. The realities of those patients — many who were low-income — led others to suggest the facility not be made as nice as it might be since it wouldn’t be maintained. Smith didn’t agree. 

“I put it in the waiting area of the old clinic with a note on it for donations for the new place. We’d get quarters and dimes — not a lot of money, but we had a lot of people paying attention. Then when we moved — our new space had a bigger reception area, carpet on the floor, new chairs, wallpaper on the walls. 

“People would say, ‘Oh, don’t do that. Those people…’ That used to drive me nuts. Those people — well, they were the poor people we were helping. 

“Our janitor bill went down. We had no marks on the wall. It was taken care of. And people would bring their friends to show them their new health center. They had put in quarters; it was theirs. They took ownership, and it really was a beautiful thing watching it happen.

“It was a tough job because it took a lot of work, but it was a fun job and you could see people (served).

“We added an STD clinic that we didn’t have. We added a well-baby clinic. We added a program for screening for mammograms and pap smears for pregnant women. They hadn’t been able to do those kinds of things (until) that new, bigger space. 

“WIC is one of my favorite programs. We could show taking those babies who also were on Medicaid and keeping track — for every $1 we spent in WIC food vouchers, we saved $2 on doctor bills. So it wasn’t costing money, it was saving. And if it saved that much on doctor bills on babies, they’re healthier adults.”

Another improvement: childhood vaccination rates, something close to Smith’s heart given his own experience with polio.

“We also really pushed childhood immunization. When I went there … we had 62% fully immunized in the county. At the end of the time I was there, we had a 92% immunization. Now, I didn’t do that. 

“We got everybody involved, but that was the result: We were able to increase immunization. That was a fun part of my life.” 

Smith made a final stop before retiring: He was recruited to serve as director of the Center for Local Public Health, part of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in Jefferson City. 

“The Director of Health, Dr. Colleen Kivlahan, was out and said, ‘We’re opening a new Center for Public Health, which is the contact point for 114 health agencies … and I want you to come down and structure that center.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’m happy right here.’ 

“She talked to me a couple of times. One day, maybe a week or so later, she calls me: ‘Can you come down and talk with my assistant and I? ‘Yeah, I’ll come down but I’m not working down there.’ 

“We went down and had coffee. I’m sitting there and I said, ‘Coleen, first off, let me tell you, I got a big legal pad. I drew a line down the middle; one side is “should go,” and the other “should not go.”’ She stopped me and said, ‘I’ve already done that for you. On the “should not go,” I’ve got a whole page. On the “should go,” all I’ve got is “I need you.” Will you come down and work?’ 

“So I went down and I spent five years as the director of the Center for Local Public Health and was the contact point for all of the health agencies.”

Smith’s retirement in the 1990s led the family back to Springfield, where he and Carol could be closer to grandchildren. Since their relocation, they have become involved in community and church activities, the latter particularly resonating as a foundation for their lives.  

“Both of our families taught us — and we have kept the tradition — that we are very much a family of faith. 

“We’ve had really a very, very good life. We’ve had various jobs — I couldn’t imagine being more blessed — I’ve never looked for a job. They’d come looking for me.”

And they speak of good fortune in other moments, when situations have worked out in special ways that the Smiths didn’t anticipate. 

“If you ever understand or hear the words prevenient grace — grace going ahead. And that’s it. Because, you know, we didn’t do (certain things). We were just part of it. We just got the opportunity.”

Kaitlyn McConnell

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region’s people, places and defining features since 2015. McConnell regularly shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. Contact her at: kaitlyn@ozarksalive.com More by Kaitlyn McConnell More by Kaitlyn McConnell