Update: In January 2014, Rep. Calvin Smyre was honored on the Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta. "I am truly honored to be inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre. “It is humbling to know that my footprints will be among some of the greatest heroes of the civil rights movement.”
Read more about the recognition in the Ledger-Enquirer.
August 23, 2013 - The Honorable Calvin Smyre, a 1970 Fort Valley State University alum, is the first of two graduates the Office of Marketing and Communications is featuring this month. The current dean of Georgia's legislature has served more than 39 years as a state representative. He is chairman of the board for the FVSU Foundation, Inc. and the executive vice president of corporate affairs at the Synovus Financial Corporation.
Earlier this month, FVSU's writer, Christina Milton, interviewed Rep. Smyre about his time at FVSU, his political carers and his hopes for the future of the university.
[QUESTION]: You said in a Columbus-Ledger-Enquirer interview that you first became interested in politics at Fort Valley State University. Who inspired you to go into politics and why?
[SMYRE]: Well, it was either my sophomore or junior year at FVSU. I went to Sandersville to listen to a rally. Hosea Williams was the speaker. [He] was a civil rights leader—one of Dr. [Martin Luther] King's lieutenants.
I finished high school in Germany in 1965, and sort of missed the Civil Rights Era, or the heart of it. And when I came back in 1965, [I] enrolled at Fort Valley, and then a year or two later, I went to this rally, and the reverend Hosea Williams piqued my interest.
And I remember him telling me a story about the "Never look at life through a knot hole." You would never look at a ballgame through a knot hole.Which would mean that in the old days, when we couldn't get [into a baseball game], we would look at it through a [wooden] fence. And a little hole was there, and you could kind of peep in and see what's going on. And [Williams] says that when you do that you could see some of the players, but you can't see the managers, who really run the game. So therefore, if you want to get involved in the politics, get involved and get on the inside, and fight for change. So, that was one of the things that piqued my interest into politics. And then I came back, I hadn't been involved in SGA; then got involved peripherally with the Student Government Association here at Fort Valley, and it just kind of grew from there.
[I] went home, and after I graduated, I started an organization called LOTT (Leaders of Today and Tomorrow). And got around 20, 25 young people; 23, 24, 25 years of age. [We] just started talking about community and citizenship and quality of life, and the next thing I know, I'm a candidate for office.
[QUESTION]: In another interview you mentioned that you had difficulty in graduating from Fort Valley State, but the process helped you to grow. How so?
[SMYRE]: Well, you know in life, there's an old saying, "You put nothing in, you get nothing out;" "You reap what you sow." And that's the way I was. I think I came [to FVSU] with a [poor] attitude about attainment, success. My focus was not in the right place. I think that this environment, the instructors, the encouragement [were] a wake-up call for me that the world owes you nothing, and whatever you put in is what you get out.
There's an old saying: "Failure is not a sin, [but] to not get up after you fall is a sin." So, after having seen failure here, I got up, and I determined that I would never cheat myself again, [and] that I would be the best. That inspired me. A couple of professors inspired me to do that.
[QUESTION]: Which professors?
[SMYRE]: Sadie Fields and Mr. Jowers. I forgot first name, but they were both in the school of business here at FVSU.
It was Ms. Fields who failed me my last quarter. I was not able to march with my class. I had to take [her] course through summer school. Since the course was not offered in summer school I had to take it, back then, correspondently, from the University of Wisconsin in Racine, Wis. You didn't have what we have now, where you can just go online. [Students] were mailing it, going back and forth, and Mr. Jowers did that for me in the summer. He collected the information for me.
I got a B+. So, commonsense tells you that if you got a B+ correspondently, you could have gotten an A in the classroom if you had applied yourself.
The fact is that Ms. Fields looked me in the eye and told me that, "You've got great potential and you can be somebody in life. You've got all of the tools, but you're just not applying them. You think that the world owes you something. You walk around here with your chest out.”
She brought tears to my eyes. I went outside and I cried. A good friend of mine who is now a minister here in Fort Valley, Kelly Dawsey, saw me.
He asked me, "What's the problem."
And I told them that I wasn't graduating next Sunday. He kind of consoled me, and we talked. So, I took my medicine, went to summer school and never looked back. I just prepared myself to be the best that I could be. I chose the field of banking financial services, and tried to excel there. And chose the field of public service. Those were my two entities.
[QUESTION]: You were first elected to the House in 1974. What was the political atmosphere like then, since segregation was ending?
[SMYRE]: Well, at that time, if you recall, that was [the time] of lot of situations in Washington, Watergate, [and] a lot of indifferences. The mood of the state and the country was: "Let's try something different; let's do something else." Because I don't think that in the normal circumstances back then that a 26-year-old could run for the House of Representatives, as [my] first office, with five people in the race, and win without a run off.
And that's what we did, my group [of] young people that I set up, not for political reasons, but for community service. We wanted to get involved with all of the different organizations in town from the Heart Fund to United Way to the Urban League. You name it; we were involved in it—all 20 of us. We were deeply rooted in the community, when one day [someone] told me that reapportionment was happening. We [met] with the leaders (of at that time). We were calling ourselves the leaders of tomorrow, and the leaders of today. We [met] with those elected officials and community leaders.
Can you imagine 20, 23-25-year-olds meeting with all of the elder African-American leaders of the city? And I was able to do [thanks to] the relationship that my father had with all of them. And I used it to our advantage to get their wisdom, and get their experience.
And so, when that reapportionment came, one of them said, "One of you all ought to run."
And they said, "Well, Calvin formed this group for us to be here, so he ought to be the person running."
That was how the decision was made for me to run for public office. In downtown Columbus, Ga. in the law office of Albert Thompson, who was the first African-American chair of the Georgia legislature, and one of my mentors. And so he said, “Okay, Calvin, let's get together. You're going to be a candidate.” And, that's how I ran for the House of Representatives.
It was an atmosphere of "Let's try something new. Let's try something different." Because during that time, you would have to pay your "dues.” It's not like the environment now, where you've got a lot of young people running for office–every office, even the presidency. So, you can see the transition from back in the day.
And, of course, for many years, I was the young man of the House, so to speak. [It was], “Hey son,” because everyone else was much, much older than I was.
[QUESTION]:Was that intimidating?
[SMYRE]: It wasn't intimidating, but it was—if you can imagine being in my shoes, at 26— and walking around with mostly, 50-, 60-, 70-year-old people, and you're trying to get involved politically. So, at that juncture I had to do my homework, and not jump off the cliff. Not be that fiery [person], it just wouldn't have worked back then, in those days. And the thing was to learn all I could. And when opportunity knocks, be ready to open the door. And in 1978, opportunity knocked. And, it was an offer for me to go on the Ways and Means Committee.
[QUESTION]: And it took you eight years to do that right?
[SMYRE]: It took four years.I became very close with the speaker, Thomas B. Murphy, speaker of the Georgia House. Albert Thompson, again, took me to meet the speaker, and our relationship just grew from there.
[QUESTION]: You said that you wanted to understand the budget process, and besides working on the Ways and Means Committee, you've worked at other financial institutions like Synovus Bank. How has this financial knowledge helped you as a legislator?
[SMYRE]: Well, you know I'll tell you this story. When I first met with Thomas Murphy, Speaker Murphy. You can imagine, a 26-year-old meeting with the Speaker of the House. [I] had not been sworn in, and he asked me this question: “Young man, what committees would you like to serve on?”
And I said, “Speaker, I'd like to serve on the appropriations committee.”
He chuckled. “Young man,” he said, “that takes years. We don't even allow freshmen to be around that process. So, what's your second choice?”
And I said, "Ways and Means.”
He said, "There you go again, those are two committees that we just don't allow freshmen to be considered for. What's your third one?"
I said, "Banks and Banking, I'm interested in [the] financials. I want to go to work for a bank, one day, so that would be a good training ground."
He said, "I don't appoint freshmen to Banks and Banking, but I'm going to appoint you to Banks and Banking.”
So, about two or three days later, he came, and he saw me somewhere, and he said, "You know what? You're going to be alright."
I said, "Why do you say that?"
He said, "I found out that Banks and Banking was your first choice, but you made it your third."
If I had asked him for Banks and Banking as my first choice, he would have [said], what? No. So, after he turned me down on Ways and Means and Appropriations, [he let me have my third choice].
He said, “You know, you never let anybody know your hand.” And that's what he was trying to tell me: in politics, play your hand; don't play somebody else's. Don't let anybody know your hand, so to speak. So, that was a lesson that Rep. Thompson had taught me, that never let [your] first thought out, that lets people know what you're thinking. So, you can see the learning curve I had, and so I went on Banks and Banking, and lo and behold, I never thought my career in banking would start so early.
So, I went to work in March of ’76 at Synovus, which at that time was Columbus Bank and Trust Company. We were one bank, $179 million in assets, and soon as we passed the banking bill, it became CB&T Bank shares, then Synovus.
I started as a manager trainee, from the bottom, applied myself and worked my way up to becoming the executive vice president of corporate affairs. [I] served on the company's corporate executive group, and I was president of the Synovus Foundation. So, [from] management trainee to that position.
My experience and my service on the banking committee, of course, prepared me for that. I knew both sides of it. I knew the regulatory oversight side of the banking. As a management trainee, I learned the operating side of banking, as well. So, those were some of the tools that I used to assist me in my banking career, and in my political career.
And, one thing about two careers, you have to have them coincide. It's hard to have them juggle. They have to be compatible. And my job, what I was doing in external Affairs, was compatible with my job as an elected official, because it was also "internal affairs,” this is what you do out in the public. So, that was very, very good for me. No stress. My job, I loved what I did at Synovus every day. I love what I did in the political field every day. And they were both compatible to each other, and that made it easier for me to have a banking career and a political career.
[QUESTION]:You said that this might be your last term in office. What are you planning to do after you retire from the house?
[SMYRE]:Well, I've served, right now, 39 years. Next year, it will be 40. And I'll be running for re-election, if people desire to send me back, and I'll serve 42 years and I think that's....
[QUESTION]:That's your cut off point?
[SMYRE] That's a long time. Four decades in the House of Representatives. I held no other office. Went 30 years without opposition, and 15 consecutive elections with no opposition, in my hometown. And that's absolutely unheard of in the political arena: in 30 years, not to have opposition.
I've always let the "All politics is local" rule guide me. Look out for my community, look out for my district. Look out for this state. And I've applied that in everything that I do. And I've traveled a lot. I've seen a lot. This will just allow me the opportunity to relax, and spend more time with friends, with family, doing some things that I hadn't been able to do, so to speak. Some areas of travel, I still will do.
I don't think that I could ever do—in its entirety—cut the umbilical cord to public service and community work, such as what I do here at Fort Valley State University, and other historically black colleges and universities I'm involved with. So, I won't retire, I'll just retread. I'll just put on new tires, and go from there.
[QUESTION]:The new president, Dr. Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, just took office. What do you hope that this administration will accomplish for the campus.
[SMYRE]: I hope that we will continue to grow, continue to provide excellence, service, and academic guidance to our students to make them be all that they can be. To continue our mission, our land grant historical mission. Providing students who get into the field of agricultural-related endeavors, teaching, business, communication, those areas of education that Fort Valley State University has been known for over the years.
FVSU is one of my loves. It has provided me the avenue where I could have a good life, career. And, so I'm always partial to trying to give back, and to continue to supporting it so we can keep our doors open for students to come in and get a good education, a good career and a better quality of life.
So, I hope [Dr. Griffith] has the energy, and the intellect (I know he has those things) and commitment. And those of us who are here is to work with him, to assist him. To all of us who are graduates and to those of us who are here, [we need to] work with him, to assist him.
To all of us who are graduates, we need to be the wind, ought to be the wind under wings of The Fort Valley State University. And, we ought to love the university, and support the university. And so, I had an opportunity to sit with him, meet his family, his two kids, his wife. I pledge to continue my efforts. I'm not a fair-weather supporter. I don't go with the wind.
My roots are deep. My stake is in the ground. And no one, and nothing, will deter me from supporting my alma mater. I feel deeply rooted here. I have a love for historically black colleges and universities because of the mission that they serve and provide. They take the diamond in the rough, cut it, make it beautiful, make it shine, and make it valuable. So, that's what I'm hoping that the Dr. Griffith will continue to give the energy and the intellect and the encouragement to the students and to continue to be the president of a great university.