Frank Stancil has served as a department commander and Alternate National Executive Committeeman. For nearly nine years, he's been adjutant of the Department of North Carolina.But as far as Stancil is concerned, one memory stands above all others when it comes to his 28-year involvement in The American Legion: the year he served as aide to National Commander Ray Smith from 2000-2001. Smith passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 78.
"It was a year of a lifetime," Stancil said, thinking back to his time as Smith's aide. "It really was an honor to work with him that year. There was nothing pretentious about him. He was just a genuine, good man, and he had the ability to inspire others to do much better than they thought they were capable. He was positive - he said he didn't like negative people - and I think that we had a very positive year together."
It was a year that Smith, at one time, thought wasn't going to happen. Department of New York Adjutant Richard Pedro remembers Smith worrying about his age, 67 when he was elected national commander. "I told him just to hang in there and that he was going to do fine, and he certainly did," Pedro said. "He was a very good commander, and he was a great person. He was a real gentleman in every sense of the word."
Past National Commander Jake Comer, who will deliver the eulogy at Smith's funeral on Sunday, said he's received dozens of emails from friends about Smith. "The one word used to describe Ray in every email is gentleman," Comer said. "He was a gentleman personified.
"When I'd travel to Florida, he lived right off of I-95, and I'd always stop off and get coffee with he and his wife, Helen. One year I didn't get a chance to stop on the way down, so I stopped on the way back. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and when I knocked on his door, Ray was there with his entire family. He told me, ‘Jake, come in here. We're just getting ready to have dessert.'"
During his tenure as national commander, Smith - a lifetime member of Banner Post 109 in Benson, N.C. - strongly advocated for a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration. He also fought to allow concurrent receipt of DoD pensions and VA disability compensation and end the so-called "disabled veterans tax." He called for legislation to ensure that military absentee ballots were handled uniformly and accurately across the nation.
But perhaps the biggest impact Smith made was on Legion membership. The organization's numbers were sliding when Smith stepped into office. Following his election, Smith pledged to end that. "The membership slide is over," Smith said. "It's time to make recruiting members fun."
He was true to his word. Under Smith's leadership, membership grew to 2.7 million members. Four departments had all-time highs in membership; another 19 hit 100 percent of their membership goal.
"People just responded well to Ray, and he was really able to rally the Legion, at all levels, around his membership plan," Comer said. "We knew he would represent the organization very well, but he really went above and beyond. He was one of our great commanders, in my estimation."
Kristine West served as the American Legion Auxiliary's national president while Smith was national commander. Smith made an impact on her. "It was an extreme pleasure, and I was very, very honored to serve with him," West said. "He was a very kind man, and he always gave me the ultimate respect, as I did him. And he would always speak on behalf of the Auxiliary and the importance of the Legion family."
For 26 years, Smith owned and operated Benson Electric Company, capitalizing on the skills he learned while serving four years in the Air Force during the Korean War. He also worked more than 20 years for the U.S. Postal Service, a bond he shared with longtime Department of North Carolina Executive Committeeman Jerry Hedrick, also a USPS retiree.
Hedrick said that Smith provided him with much-needed guidance when Hedrick joined the NEC in 1992. North Carolina's previous NECman had died in office, and Hedrick, in his own words, "didn't have any idea what I was doing. But Ray helped me immensely."
Sharing the views of others, Hedrick said Smith went about his business quietly. "He wasn't flashy," Hedrick said. "What you saw was what you got. But when he spoke, people listened because they also knew Ray was going to speak the truth. And it was never self-serving. It was always for the good of his family, for The American Legion or for America's veterans."
Smith's service toward his community and veterans didn't start and stop with The American Legion. He'd spent the previous 10 years serving as chairman of the North Carolina Veterans Affairs Commission and also was involved in several youth programs, in addition to serving for years as chairman of the Legion's Americanism Commission. He was named U. S. Postal Service Citizen of the Year in 1983 and Benson Citizen of the Year in 1988. He also served as town commissioner from 1995 until he was unable to continue due to illness.
After his year as national commander, Smith went back to Post 109 and did what he always had done - went to work recruiting new Legionnaires. A previous post commander and 20-year post adjutant, he became 109's membership chairman. "Not many people have the passion for The American Legion that Ray Smith had," Stancil said. "He kept us on the straight and narrow here. Everyone listened when Ray spoke."
While Smith did a good job of mentoring those who followed him, Hedrick said a hole will now remain in the Department of North Carolina.
"You cannot replace a man of Ray Smith's stature," he said. "There's a void there, even if Ray did do a good job of mentoring people. When you lose someone like that, all you can do is try to go on. But he will be missed - both in this state and in this nation."
Condolences can be sent to Helen Smith, 322 W. Main St., Benson, NC 27504. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to American Legion Auxiliary Unit 109, c/o Betty Jo Young, 2550 NC Hwy 242, South, Benson, NC, 27504, or to Smyrna OFWB Church, c/o Doris Godwin, 200 Eldridge Street, Dunn, NC, 28334.