Former pastor of Tifton’s First Baptist Church and a highly respected man in the Tifton community has died at the age of 85.
The Rev. Dr. W. Ches Smith III died Saturday at Tift Regional Medical Center. He and his family came to Tifton more than 45 years ago, and since then, he has touched many lives locally and beyond the state of Georgia. Many people saw him as a friend, idol and a tremendous asset to this community. Smith served as pastor of First Baptist for close to 30 years.
One local woman, Doris Cooksey Cowart, who fondly spoke about what kind of man Smith was to so many who knew him, described Smith as being not only a pastor to First Baptist Church but to everyone who knew him in Tift County as well.
Dr. W. Wayne Roe, pastor of First Baptist Church, said, “Dr. Ches Smith was my trusted advisor, confidant and friend. I never saw anyone speak so eloquently on the spur of the moment or take complex theological truths and simplify them in ways so memorable you could never forget, as he. If Baptists had bishops, he would have been one a long time ago because Baptist churches all across south Georgia looked to Bro. Ches for interims and pulpit supply, for counsel and for advice. Our state and national Baptist conventions looked to him for leadership. His marriage of 64 years with Dot and his outstanding children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are testimony to the fact that the faith in Christ that he preached, he also embodied daily in his home. When I sat down at my desk Friday morning, coming to terms with how critically ill he had suddenly become, the burden of leading First Baptist suddenly felt heavier because I had always had him to lean upon and to draw strength and encouragement from. Like many, I had come to hope and assume that he would always be nearby.”
He added, “First Baptist is the great church it is today, and Tifton is the wonderful community it is today, to a large part because of the faithful Christian leadership and steady moral guidance Bro. Ches provided over the last 46 years. He will be greatly missed by many people, but by none more so than I.”
According to Smith’s obituary, at an early age, he realized the value of a good education, and he achieved this for himself. He graduated from the renowned Boys High School of Atlanta and then went on to Mercer University in Macon, where he remained for a short while before joining the United States Merchant Marines. His unit was later fused into the United States Army where he remained for four years of creditable service to our nation.
After leaving the armed forces, Smith returned to college and received his AB degree in 1957 from Emory University, and then he went on to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from which he earned three degrees: his B.D., his Th.M and his D.Min. In 1973, Mercer recognized Smith’s wisdom, foresight and vision for the university and the Baptist denomination by conferring upon him the honorary D.D. degree. For 25 years, on Friday evenings, he taught ministers at the Norman Bible Institute. In addition, he served as a trustee of Tift College and Mercer University, and he had the distinction of making the motion that a theology school be created, which later became known as the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. From there, he went to Guess Road Baptist Church, Durham, N.C. He then moved to Decatur, serving the Glenwood Hills Baptist Church. In 1966, he became pastor of First Baptist Church in Tifton, where he served as pastor for 29 years. At his retirement in 1995, Smith was named Pastor Emeritus of the First Baptist Church.
For 17 plus years, he served as interim pastor of various Baptist churches in Chula, Cordele, Valdosta, Adel, Quitman, Moultrie, Fitzgerald and Baxley. He concluded his interims with the Zion Hope Baptist Church, which he was pastoring when he died. He maintained and continued relationships with all these congregations. Yet during these interims, he retained his deep involvement with and support of the Tifton First Baptist Church, including active membership in the Frank Raley Co-ed Sunday School class.
Smith took a leadership role as moderator of the Atlanta and Mell associations, was the president of Georgia Baptist Convention and served on many committees in the convention. He also chaired the Board of Directors of THE CHRISTIAN INDEX and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was a part of the organization of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed for the purpose of education, fellowship, and global missions, served on the First National Council and as Georgia’s first moderator of the Baptist Fellowship.
In addition, Smith served as president of the Tifton Rotary Club and is a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International. Because of his service and leadership to the Tifton community, the Tifton-Tift County Chamber of Commerce elected to hang his portrait on the Tifton Wall of Fame.
Smith was also a weaver of baskets. He wove baskets at the annual Love Affair. Strollers would pull up a chair to watch him and often poured out their hearts as they received wise counseling.
Dr. Joe Turner, who came to Tifton in 1964, has known Smith ever since he came to Tifton. He said Smith married all of his children.
“He’s one of the best men I’ve ever known,” Turner stated. “He lived the life that he preached.”
He said Smith was extremely interested in missions. He stated that more than 20 or 25 years ago, Smith came along with him to Africa for about a month to do medical mission work. They stayed in western Africa. Turner said he would write the medications and Smith would hand them out. Smith also spoke and preached in huts.
“He was well known for directing and speaking at funerals. He was a down-to-earth person. He was a great friend,” Turner said. “He was a fine, outstanding man. No one is perfect, but he came close to it than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Funeral services for Smith will be held at 1 p.m. today in the sanctuary of Tifton’s First Baptist Church. The funeral will be broadcast live on the local cable systems.
Smith is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy Walters Smith; five children, William Ches “Skip” Smith IV and wife Judy of Augusta, Dr. Carol Goff and husband Rodney of Macon, Dr. Karen Smith and Paul Harris of Wales, Lisa Daughtrey of Tifton and Kathy and Milton Martin of Augusta. For more information about Smith, see his obituary on page 3A.
Other quotes from those who knew Smith:
• “He touched a multitude of people with God’s blessing. He brought peace to the table for many people. Anything that he did was done with love. He’s an icon in our community. I idolized him. Bro. Ches Smith was an example that I will always try to follow because he was a man of God. I think his legacy will live because of that.”
- Jimmy Allen, retired CPA from Allen, Pritchett & Bassett, LLP
• “In my early 30s, I met with Ches every week for two years as chair of the deacons at First Baptist. He was Paul and I was young Timothy. So began one of my most cherished friendships. He poured himself into me. He taught me so much about many things, but especially about how to work with people. I think the ‘W’ in W. Ches Smith III stands for ‘Wise Ches Smith.’ He was Tifton’s pastor and he was my friend. My life is forever improved because of him.”
- Greg Sowell, former Tifton attorney and now senior director of advancement at the University of Georgia School of Law
• “Dr. Smith was a master in ministering to and comforting the sick. When my older sister was dying with cancer, he would come into her hospital room, kneel by her bed and remind her of the love of the Lord and pray for her. When he left the room, she was calm and quiet, having been soothed by the voice of a caring minister.”
- Rosalyn Donaldson
• “Everyone felt that Rev. Ches Smith was their best friend, and when they saw him move about the community, they felt they were watching God’s man at work.”
- Eunice Mixon, community activist
• “Ches Smith embodied the highest and most authentic meaning of Christian ministry. He not only proclaimed the gospel with passion, insight and integrity, his preaching flowed from a reservoir of profound and genuine piety, embracing the strong and the weak, the powerful and the lowly with grace and compassion. He was an eloquent and persuasive voice among the Trustees of Mercer University to authorize the beginning of McAfee School of Theology. His influence and the mark of his character among Baptists and within Mercer University will endure for generations to come.”
- Kirby Godsey
• “We have lived next door to Ches and Dot since we moved to Tifton 17 years ago. He was the same man in his yard on weekday afternoons that he was in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. A quick smile and a kind word were his trademarks. He made you feel better by just having been around him. We will always remember him fondly and will miss him terribly.”
- Donnie and Linda Connell
• Dr. Ches has always been my neighbor, first on 12th Street and later at Forest Lakes, since moving his family to Tifton in 1966 as pastor of First Baptist Church. He was not only our neighbor but our pastor, our friend and our brother in Christ. He was always a great help to me during some hard times in my life. A dear friend to my first husband, Bub, and now to my husband, Randy. I have a message on my phone right now that was sent a few days before his passing that said, ‘Hello, neighbor, give me a call when you get there.’ He later came over and spent time with us, which we think was a gift from God. Both Randy and I will grieve the loss of our dear neighbor and friend.”
- Doris and Randy Cowart
• “The entire Branch family has benefited from his guidance and his caring. Whether we were facing the joy of new births or the sorrow of the cemetery, he was there to rejoice with us or to cry with us. He baptized our children, accompanied them on mission trips or summer camps and taught them, through example, how to be productive Christian men and women both in the church and the community. Most of all, he was our dear and cherished friend.”
- Carol and Dan Branch
• “W. Ches Smith was my friend. He was my friend and counselor through good times, bad times and particularly, adverse times. Ches Smith was my pastor for many years. He, in that role, and to me, personally, was wise, compassionate and understanding, but also possessed the talent of constructive criticism whenever or wherever it was needed or deserved. Through our sessions when Ches would just drop by my office to talk about religion or law or the status of life itself and the hereafter, my visions of life, work, belief and responsibility became increasingly clearer. His opinions, advice and friendship taught me lessons accompanied by blessings that I have used and will continue to use and enjoy. I will forever be indebted to him for the sharing with me of his boundless Christianity and its application to the endeavors of life. W. Ches Smith was the best ‘funeral preacher’ ever. As this great and devoted man of God takes flight to his everlasting communion with the Holy Trinity, we shall celebrate his life as he has so led us in service after service for those who have gone before. Thank you, Rev. Ches Smith for the superior example of life you have set before us.”
- John S. “Sandy” Sims Jr.
• “Rev. Smith has been a tremendous inspiration to me and my family. He has given of his time to come into our home and share his wisdom and perspective with us. His calm demeanor and strong faith were his strengths. He has been a great friend and mentor. He has touched the lives of so many people in this community. He will be missed.”
- Judge Larry Mims
• “Bro. Ches was always concerned about the next generation. The last year of his ministry at First Baptist, he took time to teach the Young Married Sunday School class. He was a wonderful teacher and encourager. We will always remember and be grateful for lessons and Baptist heritage he instilled in us.”
- William Bowen and Robert Massey
• “I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. W. Ches Smith III on Saturday. He will be sorely missed by all of those whose lives he touched through the years. Dr. Smith was affectionately known to me as ‘Bro. Ches,’ and his passing caused me to reflect on the tremendous impact he had on my life beginning from the time I was born through my baptism at the age of nine until he officiated at my wedding in 1996. Through his sermons on Sundays and teachings at Wednesday night suppers, Bro. Ches introduced me to God and my faith, and that is the foundation and background upon which I have lived my life. I will forever be grateful to him for that. On the same day I learned from my father of Bro. Ches’ illness, a friend shared with me this story told by Billy Graham at a luncheon in Charlotte. Upon taking the podium, Dr. Graham said, ‘I’m reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honored by Time magazine as the Man of the Century. Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle punching the tickets of every passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn’t find his ticket, so he reached in his trouser pockets. It wasn’t there, so he looked in his briefcase but couldn’t find it. Then he looked in the seat beside him. He still couldn’t find it. The conductor said, ‘Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it.’ Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket. The conductor rushed back and said, ‘Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don’t worry, I know who you are. No problem. You don’t need a ticket. I’m sure you bought one.’ Einstein looked at him and said, ‘Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.’ Having said that, Billy Graham continued, ‘See the suit I’m wearing? It’s a brand new suit. My children and my grandchildren are telling me I’ve gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I’ll be buried. But when you hear I’m dead, I don’t want you to immediately remember the suit I’m wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am, I also know where I’m going.’ It was timely that my friend shared this story with me because it reminded me so much of Bro. Ches. He no doubt knew who he was, and I am sure he knew where he was going.”
- Laura Turner Beyer
• “Bro. Ches and I would always greet each other with a bear hug followed with his big smile. He would say, ‘Doll, how are you doing?’ I will treasure his friendship and smile. His unique ability to develop special relationships with every person is a positive trait of his. His friendship was based on respect, love and kindness.”
- Leonara “Doll” Graydon
• “Bro. Ches’ favorite song was ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ He loved me and my family, like Jesus, with his whole heart.”
- Marlene Bowen Thornton
• “Ches and Dot Smith were one of the first couples when they moved to Tifton and we had been very close friends ever since. We would eat together and we had a lot of special moments. So often I would come out of the church after attending one of the funerals that Ches had officiated at and I would say, ‘Ches, I hope you'll do mine that well.’ And he would tell me, ‘Evelyn, I’ve got a file that thick on you.’ We just loved them more than I can ever say. The funeral of Ralph Edwards was the last funeral that Ches officiated. It will always be heartwarming for me and my daughters.”
- Evelyn Edwards
• “Charlotte Bedell chairs the First Baptist Hospital Ministry Committee that Bro. Ches instigated when he and Dot saw the need when they ministered to a family devastated after a wreck on I-75 in 1973. Families from as far away as Australia have benefited from this ministry. The committee members have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Charles and I have been close personal friends with Ches and Dot. We have been on trips and shared children and grandchildren stories. We and the Joe Turners went with Dot and Ches to Wales for the ordination of their daughter, Karen, as a Baptist minister. Ches took us to many Baptist meetings and preaching events, which taught us to cherish our Baptist heritage. We have become as intent as he on preserving the things our forefathers learned and taught.”
- Carolyn Massey
Ches Smith dies at age of 85
Former pastor of Tifton’s First Baptist Church and a highly respected man in the Tifton community has died at the age of 85.
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