Sheriff J.B. Smith Finishing Out More Than Three Decades Of Service
By KENNETH DEAN
His very name has been synonymous with Smith County law enforcement for three decades. During those 30-plus years J.B. Smith has stood against his enemies, become beloved by most of the county's registered voters and even been admired by the prisoners in his jail.
But how did an Arkansas sharecropper's son, who joined the Navy to flee his dysfunctional family and abusive stepfather, end up in Tyler as the longest-serving sheriff of a county named for Texas Revolutionary Gen. James Smith?
The sheriff, who took office in 1976, sat in his office on Spring Street recently and discussed earning his GED, attending college, his law enforcement career, which began in California, and his tenure in office.
"I got here by mistake. I was driving through in 1969 and fell in love with the area and applied with the Tyler Police Department and that's what started it all," he said.
The sheriff's once-thick dark hair is now replaced with a short-cropped gray do and the trademark moustache met with the business end of a razor several years ago, but Smith's quick wit and sometimes brash humor is still intact.
"My wild oats of yesterday have long since turned into shredded wheat," he quipped about the ending of his storied career -- a career that has seen him serve as sheriff for 35 years.
Smith has been elected to office eight times consecutively. He was ousted from office, returned to office by a federal judge thus cementing his place in the county's history.
The sheriff admitted he got "crossways" with a district attorney and some of Tyler's prominent residents early in his career and that taught him a valuable lesson.
"You cannot be at odds with the district attorney, judges or other law enforcement agencies, because then it just doesn't work. I learned that the hard way," he said.
During his time out of office, Smith drove trucks hauling building materials, built fences and even sold Mary Kay cosmetics, but his high-profile case in the media cost him some opportunities at the time.
"I tried to get a job driving a truck for Southland on U.S. Highway 271 (now Brookshires' Southwest Foods) but they told me they wouldn't hire because I was too hot politically," he said. After pausing a moment, he added, "I think that is the most hurt I've been, because all I wanted to do was work."
Once back in office, Smith's popularity grew and despite multiple allegations of corruption in his office and high-ranking deputies being arrested, voters continued to elect the sheriff, who charmed all he met with his sense of humor.
"To be truthful, I've had more trouble out of employees over the years than I have had with prisoners. But I have tried to keep a positive attitude, and my sense of humor helped me swallow some of the things that have happened," he said.
Smith said he has taken his lumps even when he didn't deserve them and he offered advice to his successor about the high-profile nature of the job.
"You are constantly under a magnifying glass and there are people who want you to mess up and fail, but the public will forgive and stand behind you if you admit you have done wrong. You cannot fool the public."
Smith, an accomplished speaker, has made hundreds of speeches across the nation. He is also an auctioneer, who regularly donates his services to help raise money for charities.
He is also an author with his second book soon to be published.
Smith plans to keep giving back to the community he has loved for the past 40 plus years.
"I'm doing the J.B.'s Journals on KYTX CBS19. I'm still on the board of the Crisis Center and the Children's Advocacy Center and other boards. I want to keep giving back, because I believe that God smiles on those who give," he said.
Thinking about what retirement from his long-running tenure as sheriff would mean for him, Smith said "I will not be retired and I will always be the sheriff of Smith County in my mind. I want to continue to help people."
Asked if he had any regrets, Smith answered, "Regrets? I have a few, but in my heart I know I have accomplished a lot and I have touched a lot of lives."
In closing The 69-year-old sheriff said he finally gets what life is all about.
"At the beginning of my career, I really didn't get it, but now, here at the end, I do. A lot of people will remember me in different ways just according to how I impacted their life," he said.
Pausing a minute, Smith said, "On my tombstone it will say J.B. Smith, born Feb. 10, 1943, my date of death and then blessed are they that laugh at themselves for they shall never cease to be amused."