Roger Smith, great husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend, said goodbye to his family, all surrounding him, just after midnight, Tuesday, February 28, 2023. It was his time to depart and begin a new journey, and he and everyone knew it. No person had done more in his lifetime to make the world a better place than Roger. He was a legendary criminal lawyer struggling case after case to bring justice to rich and poor alike. He was an accomplished orator and a remarkable writer. No one could take words from the storehouse of the English language and string them into sentences that could move and shake people better than Roger. His poetry is enjoyed by all who knew him. He wrote in the style of Robert Frost.
He was an avid collector of stones and debris from space as meteorites. He was a collector of artifacts left by early peoples of his region. Roger hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the Shenandoah Valley with Robert McMillan and a hiking group known as the Will Turner Hiking Club. At times, joining the group a day late because of work related delays, he would walk into the wilderness in the dark of night arriving at an Adirondack shelter deep in the night.
Roger was born in Albemarle, North Carolina, on June 15, 1941. His mother was Ruth Carpenter and his father was Charlie B. Smith. Charlie B and Ruth were mill village children in the Great Depression. Ruth’s parents were mill workers. Charlie B’s father was pastor of East Rockingham Baptist Church in Rockingham, North Carolina. They fell in love as teenagers and stopped their formal education at age 15 or 16 to take jobs in the cotton mill to help support their families. They did their courting there. They were married on September 19, 1936 in the parsonage of East Rockingham Baptist Church, a small house on the mill village.
As a young couple they were attracted to the city of Albemarle, North Carolina, where they heard that jobs were available in a new kind of textile mill. They moved to Albemarle to be part of the new textile industry. They settled in the village of New Town where houses were provided by the mill company and rent was affordable. There was a little clapboard Baptist church at the edge of the village. It was North Albemarle Baptist Church. There were other young families there with young children. It was a good place. And there they settled and had their times. On June 15, 1941, Roger was born.
Life was good in the village of New Town. Albemarle was a remarkable small town.
The mill houses were clean, neat and small. There was no running water. But who needed that. It was no matter. Water for the community was from a pump not far from the houses. Each house was furnished with an “out house.” Ruth and Charlie were accustomed to these arrangements. There were no phones. But, who needed phones. Ruth and Charlie washed clothes in a large iron wash pot out in the back yard. Charlie built a fire around the pot and they washed the clothes clean and hung them out on clothes lines to dry. Each house had a sturdy clothesline. At times it was embarrassing because the neighborhood kids made fun of the neighbors’ underwear and laughed at the great sizes.
The small Baptist church offered opportunities for Roger to enjoy fellowship with other children on the village. The family attended church services twice on Sunday and on Wednesday nights for prayer meeting and choir practice.
It was an honor to be a mill hill boy. These boys were tough. Roger was a very successful mill hill boy. He could run like the wind. And if you tackled him on gravel and skinned up his arms he might come up swinging, but there were never any lasting hard feelings. The games made strong and resourceful children. Backyard football and basketball were daily fun times after school. Charlie B made what he called a chinning pole to make strong arms.
When Roger was six years old, Ruth took him by the hand and walked the half mile to Central Elementary School. There were no kindergarten opportunities for him. He just went to school when he was six. But North Albemarle Baptist Church was way more than kindergarten. He was in church even as a tiny child, sitting in his mother’s arms during sermons by his grandfather, J. Marvin Smith or by Mr. Wade B. Holmes, the regular preacher. Roger was an immediate success in school. He made all A’s and was loved by his teachers. He had a sweet disposition and he was a quick learner. He was usually elected class president for each school class. In high school he was student body president. He was a big strong boy and the sport of football was created for him. He was a terrific athlete. His senior year he was selected to play in the Shrine Bowl game in Charlotte. The best players from South Carolina played the best players from North Carolina. Roger set a new record for the number of carries of the ball by a member of the back field for any team. Playing the position of fullback, he carried the ball as many as 30 times in the game. North Carolina won the game. His leadership for the team and his athleticism resulted years later in his induction into the Stanly County Sports Hall of Fame.
Roger was a strong member of Boy Scout Troop 29, and the Flying Eagle Patrol. The scout troop often camped in the deep forests of Morrow Mountain. Cooking out, building small fires and sitting by the fire late at night with his scouting friends made a permanent impact on his life.
The most important moment of his young life was meeting and falling in love with a young girl in Albemarle named Bonnie Lowder. She was the love of his life. He was an 8th grade boy. This was a love that lasted until Bonnie’s death on May 5, 2020. They were together in high school and there was never an end to their love.
Roger graduated from Albemarle High School in the class of 1959 and was granted a Morehead Scholarship for his further education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the football team at UNC and in his senior year he was selected to be team captain. In his final year the team was invited to play in the Gator Bowl. Their opponent was the Air Force Academy. They won the game that day in Jacksonville, Florida. In his senior year at UNC Roger was made a member of The Golden Fleece, UNC’s highest award.
After college Roger attended law school. He had no money for law school, so he took a job delivering the Daily Tar Heel each morning early before school. Bonnie worked as a public-school teacher to support the family. After law school, Roger took a position as law clerk to the honorable Carlisle W. Higgins of the North Carolina Supreme Court. There he wrote briefs and other documents. It was immediately clear that he had a remarkable aptitude for writing, and he was a great success as a law clerk. Roger’s love of words and his ability to string them together into sentences was displayed in the documents he prepared for Judge Higgins in their year together.
In fall, 1966, Roger joined the law firm Tharrington Smith, founded in 1964. This became the place of Roger’s life work. It was a nurturing environment and at this place he grew to be a great and legendary advocate. He had an uncanny ability to write. He wrote stunningly beautiful briefs. He wrote poetry. And he wrote all kinds of legal documents. If he had a document to create, he would spend weeks on it, buffing it and polishing it until, even though it was a utilitarian legal document, it was a joy to read.
As his skills grew as a writer, he also grew into a trial lawyer of great power and skill. He could not escape his calling. He was born to be a trial lawyer. From childhood he heard preaching in the great Baptist tradition. Resting in his mother’s arms, as a child, he heard stories of forgiveness, redemption, atonement, mercy. There were no places in this little church for a nursery in which children could await their parents. They sat in church. Roger did anything he could to avoid boredom including memorizing the church bulletin and committing to memory the words on a fan which the funeral home had sent to the churches. He memorized a poem titled “Boost Your Neighbor” which he could recite from memory as an adult.
It was natural for Roger to take a criminal case, see the good in his client, and plead for mercy. He took death penalty cases by court appointment and committed himself fully to examining every speck of evidence and working to understand his client. He didn’t just do it all day. He did it all night. His devotion to his work was astounding. But, it was what was required to do the job he intended to do.
One case which helps to illustrate his fierce commitment to his work came in a death penalty case titled State v. James Hutchins. Roger was working with Joseph Cheshire, V. Mr. Hutchins was scheduled to die on the very next morning. Roger and Joe were up late in the night hoping to find some glitch, some argument for stopping the execution. Late in the night they found a small argument. Roger called the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Burley Mitchell. And he agreed to convene the Supreme Court at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. The Court got out of bed and came to the Justice Building and opened a session. Roger and Joe made their arguments. The Court agreed with their arguments. The chief justice called the prison and the execution was stopped. For the moment, the execution was postponed.
Roger’s devotion and his professionalism was recognized by his fellows at the Bar and by the Bar Association. He was a decorated lawyer with many accolades. He was elected President of the Wake County Bar Association. He won the Branch Professionalism Award. He was included in Best Lawyers in America.
Those who knew him best realized his talent was exceptional. His personality was at times a deep and brooding intellect. He was a savant in many ways. He was constantly thinking and pondering something he was writing.
Roger enjoyed his relationships with many friends. One of his favorite activities was hiking and he joined with his great friend, Robert McMillan and others to create a group named The Will Turner Hiking Club. This club organized an annual hike through the wilderness on the Appalachian Trail. Often, Roger would be required to join the group a day late. On these occasions he would hike alone in the night time through deep woods occupied by bears and wild hogs. He seemed unconcerned. He would show up in the night as though he had walked through a picnic area.
Bonnie and Roger were married and from that marriage there sprang a great outpouring of beautiful children. Kim, a daughter was born first. Then Roger, Jr. was born. Kim was selected Junior Miss America, a great honor for the family. Roger, Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps to be the same kind of inspired trial lawyer.
Bonnie passed away two years ago. All who knew this beautiful and amazing woman grieve her loss. Roger is survived by his daughter, Kim Yandow and her husband Chris Yandow, and by his son Roger Smith, Jr. and his wife Leigh Ann.
He is survived by Kim’s daughter, Rachel and her husband Michael Kitto and their children, Curtis, Evan and Caroline; by Kim’s son Jesse Lanham and his wife Alysha and their children, Lucy, Charlie and William; by Kim’s son Christopher Lanham and his wife Rachel and his daughter, Lyla and their son, Wells; by Kim’s son Michael Lanham and his son, Eli; by Chris’s daughter Sarah Yandow; by Kim’s son Braden Lanham and his wife Brooke and his son, Samson; by Kim’s daughter Eliza Jones and her husband Josh and their children, Ethel, Adam and Hazel; by Chris’s daughter Hannah Yandow; by Kim’s son Mark Lanham; and by Kim and Chris’ son Jonathan Yandow.
He is survived by Roger and Leigh Ann’s children, Roger William Smith, III, Estelle Lowder Smith and Garner Elliott Smith.
He is also survived by his brother, Wade and by Wade’s wife, Ann and their children, Karen and Robyn; by Karen’s husband, Terry and their children Kelsey and Dylan; and by Wade and Ann’s daughter, Robyn and her children Kenan Yiğit and Aslan Yiğit and by Robyn’s former husband, Erdal Yiğit
A graveside service for family is scheduled early Tuesday, March 7. On Tuesday afternoon, March 7, there will be a memorial service at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church located at 1801 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh. The service is scheduled for 2:30 PM.
In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to Dementia Alliance of NC, 9131 Anson Way, Unit 206, Raleigh, NC 27615, dementianc.org
Or, donations may be made to: UNC Law Foundation, Inc. UNC School of Law, Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27509-3380.
Services by Brown-Wynne, 300 St. Mary's Street, Raleigh.
Dementia Alliance of NC 9131 Anson Way Unit 206, Raleigh, North Carolina