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The World of Jak Smyrl: South Carolina Artist, Journalist, Cartoonist

The World of Jak Smyrl: South Carolina Artist, Journalist, Cartoonist

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The World of Jak Smyrl: South Carolina Artist, Journalist, Cartoonist

544 pages
8 hours
Feb 27, 2020


"I was just a poor artist. I couldn't afford a 'C.'"

This quip by Jak Smyrl, born Oscar Jackson Smyrl, Jr., in Camden, South Carolina, captures all the charm, humility, and humor of a one-of-a-kind character, beloved cartoonist, artist, and journalist who uniquely rendered his era and place with his pen, brushes, and words. In this long-overdue biography ranging from his humble beginnings to being honored by the South Carolina General Assembly "for his distinguished career as an artist" with thanks for "lightening the heart of uncounted South Carolinians," his life and legacy is honored, and his love for South Carolina is magnified.

Warm and intimate, this is the story of a gentle and self-effacing man with an uncanny talent and a dry, whip-smart sense of humor that was never cruel but brought people together while enlarging their lives with pleasure. He discovered his talent while young and used it throughout his life to spotlight not only the foibles of the world around him but the goodness he found there as well. It was a good life, well lived yet not without its sorrows—but always infused with an admirable and infectious optimism, a hallmark of his character.

From Smyrl's work illustrating members of his high school football team for a newspaper to his war experiences, and from his struggling-artist days as a student at the University of South Carolina and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to landing his dream job, where he became "Jak" (without that "C"), as the first staff artist of the State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, Joan A. Inabinet and L. Glen Inabinet highlight excerpts from his letters and diaries that offer trenchant insights into the man and his times.

Enhanced by photographs and Smyrl's illustrations, The World of Jak Smyrl presents a remarkable slice of small-town and rural southern life in the 1920s and 30s, moving on to the wider world and the turmoil of World War II through the turn of the millennium. Some artists' lives are worth chronicling because their unique vision and their works are fine-tuned to capturing the flavor of an era and its color—Jak Smyrl's life is one of these.

Feb 27, 2020

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The World of Jak Smyrl - Joan A. Inabinet

Chapter 1

Lightening the Hearts

So glad you’re here

Jak dressed carefully that morning in a natural linen sports coat, his favorite striped shirt, and a deep-blue tie. It was June 6, 2007, and temperatures in humid Columbia, South Carolina, soared as expected into the nineties. By the time he arrived at the State House, the combination of heat, extra exertion, and pleasant anticipation had restored color to his face. Most days now it was pallid.

In his right hand, the polished cane he had selected was as whimsical as useful. It was of his own carving, a sturdy burled twist with a long-beaked bird’s head that fit into his palm. Seeing Jak Smyrl that day, even if recognizing him as a man of eighty-four, a casual observer might have thought the cane a mere fashion touch.

The visitors heading toward the spectators’ gallery for the morning legislative session moved slowly, talking among themselves. Jak was at ease with the pace, especially with his wife, Betty, and brother, Alfred, on either side and with a half dozen nieces and nephews following. Jak smiled with pleasure when he recognized familiar faces and stopped more than once to speak. He rested only lightly on his cane. In conversation he inclined his white head carefully to favor small round hearing aids and peered through modest glasses with gold wire rims. For many years large dark frames had enhanced his distinctive, heavy-lidded eyes, which drooped downward at the outer corners. At the entrance to the gallery above the House of Representatives, he exchanged greetings and joked a few minutes with a hometown pal from Camden who had long worked as a greeter in these halls.

Taking a seat in the spectators’ gallery, Jak spoke first to each family member seated about him, Are you comfortable? Can you see? So glad you’re here. He scanned with admiration the formal oil portraits, gleaming brass, and polished mahogany. Look at all that … so grand … this place looks terrific. On the floor below, conversing legislators milled among rows of paper-strewn desks. A sharply pounded gavel summoned the hubbub to order and called for business.

Representative Laurie Funderburk stepped forward to the podium. For the record she announced a formal document already adopted in both the House and the Senate. Jak heard the words ring as she read the title on the printed page: A Concurrent Resolution—to Recognize and Honor Jak Smyrl, of Kershaw County, for His Distinguished Career as an Artist and Writer. She then read aloud the words of the document. It first recounted the influences of his childhood:

Whereas, Oscar Jackson Smyrl, Jr., born in 1923 in Camden, grew up in an active, loving family, where laughter and storytelling helped shape him into the artist Jak Smyrl; and

Whereas, in his childhood during the Great Depression, when rural youngsters learned to make their own fun, young Smyrl sketched funny pictures to amuse his siblings as they sat together evenings by the light of an oil lamp centered on the kitchen table …

Jak heard the resolution detail achievements, and that in his lifetime, he has turned to all arts, including conversation, music, and writing, that bring people closer together and enlarge their world with pleasure. The document traced the years of his early manhood:

The Southern outdoor world of his youth nurtured an enduring love for natural beauty and a sympathy for nature’s creatures, later seen in Jak’s cartoon strips that for several years illustrated South Carolina Wildlife magazine’s early Carolina Sports columns. Called by duty from his college classroom in World War II, he served in the United States Marines during the Pacific island invasions and afterwards in the occupation army in North China, his pencil, brush, and camera going with him everywhere. During post-war college and studio studies, Jak landed a job with The State and The Columbia Record newspapers in Columbia and entered the working world of the commercial artist.

The resolution summarized his long career and touched on his private life:

Staff artist at The State and The Columbia Record for thirty-seven years, as well as a free-lance illustrator for dozens of books and hundreds of other projects, Jak Smyrl has made an indelible mark on South Carolina and beyond. He was a sustaining contributor to the long-time survival of The State Magazine, one of the defining publications of the Palmetto State; the state and local maps he illustrated with comic sketches record valuable details of historic and contemporary locales; his was the first logo of the University of South Carolina to depict the gamecock in fighting stance….

With his devoted wife, interior designer Betty Spires, whom he married in 1958, Jak Smyrl has traveled the world and lived both simply and grandly, collecting friends everywhere, his trips frequently becoming the basis for detailed travel articles and sketches published on return. Jak and Betty’s Camden and Holden Beach, North Carolina, homes are filled with memorabilia, objects of nature, his artworks, and often with family and friends.

Jak heard then the conclusion:

Whereas, through his lifework, Jak, who referred to himself as the pore man’s Picasso, has given legions of South Carolinians insight into important issues, all delivered up with a smile and designed to engender chuckles in those enjoying his creations, the General Assembly takes great pleasure in recognizing this eminent artist and son of South Carolina for his contributions to this great State.

Now, therefore,

Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring:

That the members of the South Carolina General Assembly, by this resolution, recognize and honor Jak Smyrl, of Kershaw County, for his distinguished career as an artist and writer and thank him for lightening the hearts of uncounted South Carolinians with his cartoon humor.

Betty and Jak with the resolution just presented him by the South Carolina General Assembly in 2007. Photograph by L. Glen Inabinet.

For lightening the hearts of uncounted South Carolinians with his cartoon humor … The words echoed. Jak heard thunderous applause—from his family seated around him, from the other spectators, and from the legislators who rose to their feet and turned to the gallery to look up at him. Standing slowly, his damp eyes shining, he waved, smiling in appreciation.

Amid a flurry of camera flashes he was led next to the Senate chamber, where the resolution was recognized by Senator Vincent Sheheen and followed by more resounding applause and more appreciative, upturned faces. From that gallery, too, Jak savored the response. He had always relished the pleasures of living in the moment, and this experience of so many smiling faces was one to enjoy. Again he raised his arm to wave to them. For the time being, the daily struggles of the cancer that isolated him on so many days of his life were put at a distance.

Chapter 2


To live up to a good man

The life of artist Jak Smyrl began in Camden in the early-morning darkness of Saturday, May 5, 1923. Inside a pleasant cottage a short distance from the small town’s main intersection, lights had burned since late Friday night. In the bedroom, where an oil lamp softened the direct circle of an electric bulb dangling overhead, Dr. S. C. Zemp delivered a well-formed but unresponsive baby boy. Expertly the doctor tilted the sluggish infant heels high, turned him over, thumped his back, slapped his bottom—once, twice, again—and massaged him confidently until Oscar Jackson Smyrl, Jr., drew his first breath with a healthily protesting squall. His mother watched with relief as the infant’s bluish skin grew pink, marked briefly with the prints of the doctor’s working fingers.

Monday morning at the Kershaw County courthouse, Dr. Zemp recorded the time of the birth as 11:25 P.M., May 4. He had been delivering babies for nearly three decades, but only in the last seven years had South Carolina law required the recording of their births. It would be twenty-one years before the boy whom the family would call Jack would need a copy of his birth certificate. Only then would the family learn that the sleepy doctor had made note of the time he had arrived to attend the mother—shortly before midnight—rather than the later time of the actual delivery.

All his life Oscar Jackson Smyrl, Jr., would report May 5 as his birth date. If a question arose about the difference on his birth certificate, he simply asserted, "My mother said I was born May 5. At times he jested as evidence, My mother would know. She was there. Schools, the military, even Social Security would accept the explanation and record May 5 on their records. Only his passport would one day read May 4 to correspond with the birth certificate. Jack shrugged off occasional inconvenience from the discrepancy. Mama told me the doctor was busy saving my life. He didn’t have time to look at his watch."

Oscar at home with good-luck catch celebrating the birth of his son Jack. Courtesy of the family.

In 1923 it was not the custom to photograph newborns nor to invite visitors in to greet recently delivered mothers, protectively hovered over by womenfolk. Young Jack’s proud father celebrated the arrival of his first son and namesake by going fishing later on the morning he was born. Although no photograph was taken of the newborn, a snapshot was made of beaming papa Oscar Jackson Smyrl Sr. back at home with a fine string of largemouth bass. For a lifelong outdoorsman, the activity was a natural celebration of pride and good fortune. He was eager to introduce the world of nature to his son.

Neighbors around the Smyrl home soon learned of the new arrival. Some of them stopped by at the smell of fresh-cooked fish that Oscar fried outside in a pan of bubbling hot grease. Dishes prepared from neighbors’ spring gardens began to appear at the Smyrl door. Good wishes were sent inside to the mother, who was expected to remain respectfully and quietly isolated for a couple of weeks more, watched over by a nursemaid approved of by the doctor and the womenfolk.

Three of Oscar’s five sisters were living with their families only short blocks away from the Smyrl cottage, so infant Jack’s two-year-old sister, Lottie, was kept happily playing nearby with older cousins surnamed Campbell, Creed, and Shaw. In an age when infection and contagion were more feared than preventable, cautions were prudent to protect an infant and a new mother from too much exposure or excitement. In a routine case, such care made home delivery with an attending doctor preferable to the comings and goings that a mother and infant might encounter in a hospital at the time.

Mae Smyrl took childbirth precautions seriously. She had been nine months old when her own mother died, and thus Mae knew the effects of such a loss on a child. Through the upbringing of her devout and energetic grandmother Davis, and through schooling encouraged by her father, a former educator, Mae held traditional values as well as beliefs in sanitation, order, and scientific learning. She valued the Bible, common sense, and sound information. To her, good manners included decent treatment of others and were as vital to admirable character as putting on airs was destructive to it. As a young mother, she felt her natural place was home, and she embraced care of it, husband, and children with a missionary devotion. As they grew the focus of her concern would expand. Were not her community and her country the enlarged spheres of the family circle that were her responsibility as a woman?

Oscar had been only ten years old when he openly announced that he intended to marry Mae. She was a stranger to him, and he did not even know her name. It was 1905 in rural Kershaw County when barefoot Oscar wandered into his family’s sitting room. Here a bevy of visiting adults excitedly chattered among themselves about the upcoming home wedding of his sister Nannie, the first of his siblings to marry. Ignored, the boy listened for a while, feeling left out. Wanting attention he abruptly pointed to a photograph propped among others on the fireplace mantel. His mother, fond of visiting and writing family and friends, was proud of her large collection of their photos she had neatly arranged on a lacey scarf.

See that girl up there in the white dress? piped up Oscar. "I’m going to marry her."

There was a stunned silence before the adults broke into hearty laughter at the unexpected comment from someone his age. Oscar, chuckled his mother, Lottie, picking up the photograph of a small girl, shyly posed standing on a large chair. She was the daughter of a deceased friend. You don’t even know this little girl. She doesn’t live here.

Well, protested Oscar stubbornly, glowering at the display of more familiar faces on the mantel. "I do know all them other girls, and I know for sure I won’t marry none of them!"

For a while Oscar had to endure good-natured teasing as the story made its rounds. Hey, buddy, where’s your bride? Eventually the incident faded into the background of congenial storytelling in the rural farming community where he grew up. Learning to joke and to take joking—it was part of his education in the familiar society of his childhood.

Nine miles northwest of Camden, that close-knit country neighborhood around Flint Hill Baptist Church undulated over red clay hills above the nearby Wateree River. Its postal and voting addresses varied over the years—Flat Rock, Cantey, Shaylor’s Hill—and families such as the Smyrls near the church called their section Flint Hill. Here Oscar grew into a sturdy, comely youth popular with the young ladies and ambitious enough to leave home for two years to earn a degree at a Columbia business college by 1915. By instinct he was a lover of nature and of the slow pace of agricultural seasons, but the modern world was changing. Not yet twenty he moved to Camden to work, boarding in the home of sister Nannie and her husband, Frank D. Ted Campbell. Oscar started as a bookkeeper for lien merchants Springs and Shannon and soon advanced to bookkeeper at the First National Bank.

In April 1917, a somber President Woodrow Wilson called for Americans to prepare for a war to end all wars. The men of Oscar’s family were not professional soldiers, but in every generation they had volunteered in defense of home. Oscar responded to natural duty. Activated in early October at Camp Jackson in Columbia, he was commissioned a corporal and qualified as a sharpshooter. In Officers Training School, he earned his second lieutenant’s bar.

In November 1918, the Great War, the World War, ended while Oscar’s unit was waiting to be shipped overseas. Held over six months for postwar duty, he was one of a small number of officers sent about the country to inventory stockpiles of military vehicles and airplanes. While it was still being said that there could never be another world war, the accounting of the nation’s defenses was taking place. Oscar’s tasks took him to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., from New York to Florida, and as far west as Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

In all Oscar had been away from Camden almost two years and had traveled a good bit by the time he hung up his uniform and came back home in spring of 1919. He had enjoyed sightseeing and socializing during assignment intervals. Now it was time to think of settling down. He would turn twenty-five before long. With postwar job shortages, he felt lucky to find a job in Camden, but his new employer, a life insurance company, promptly transferred him out of town with duties he disliked. In the fall Oscar paid a visit to family in Camden to check on a different job prospect, and a chance bit of news caught his interest.

A pretty new schoolteacher, he heard at the supper table, had come from North Carolina to teach at Flint Hill’s recently built Piedmont School. She was Miss Mary Ann Davis, boarding for the school term with the family of her uncle Bob McDowell, right up the road from the Smyrl place. The new teacher was the grown-up baby of Bob’s sister who had died before her daughter was a year old.

It had been many years since young Oscar had been teased for saying he would marry an unknown little girl in a photo sent his mother. Others by then had forgotten the incident, but he had not. Without saying a word, he realized that the new teacher must have been that girl in the photo. Bemused curiosity piqued him, and he quietly determined to meet her. He wondered how she had turned out and expected to laugh at himself for how foolish his boyish notion had been.

On Sunday Oscar arrived early at Flint Hill Baptist Church, where he had been elected a deacon when he was only seventeen. He knew that the McDowells, faithful in attendance like the Smyrls, would be there. He was already seated when they arrived, Miss Davis with them. As they made their way to a pew, he could see only glimpses of a small, slight girl with dark hair who nodded pleasantly to others. Oscar’s mind wandered during the sermon, thinking he had not seen enough of Miss Davis to tell anything about her.

After church he worked his way through familiar well-wishers over to the McDowells for an introduction. He looked into Miss Davis’s dark eyes and forgot his expectation of finding her flaws. May I, he blurted politely, be introduced to you? I would like to invite you to take a ride with me sometime. She looked into his blue eyes and paused a moment. I would be pleased to be introduced. Perhaps I would like to take a ride sometime.

In 1919 a ride in the countryside was an adventure. Most roads of the rural community were not improved enough for easy passage of automobiles, and by necessity horse-drawn vehicles were common transportation. Life at Flint Hill moved at a slow pace. Mae, a stranger, was curious to see the places native to the mother she had never known.

On their first ride together Oscar and Mae traveled by a buggy down the main-traveled country road and in conversation discovered a mutual interest in modern gadgetry. When they rode again, they followed side roads and took photos with Oscar’s folding bellows Kodak, although they had trouble figuring out the exposures and almost none of the images turned out. On their rides Oscar delighted in showing Mae spectacular views from the steep hills. The winding glimmer of the Wateree River threaded through them. The young couple saw woods and fields, some of them beautifully cultivated, others abandoned and scarred by erosion and neglect.

Only two and one-half rugged miles by straight-line reckoning from the Smyrl home, Oscar and Mae felt very small looking down from a precipitous clay-and-stone ledge the locals called Eagle’s Nest. Below them the broad top of a mammoth new dam more than eighty feet high stretched across the Wateree River. The raw concrete barrier, with ant-like workers and distant echoes of heavy machines, gave startling contradiction to nearby areas of quiet natural isolation. Building of the dam had begun before America joined the World War and had continued despite it. All the time Oscar had been away, the dam had been rising higher and higher. Hundreds of able-bodied workers were exempted from the draft to keep up the steady construction pace. Only recently, on September 13, according to the news report of the Southern Power Company, water had risen high enough behind the yet-unfinished dam to begin turning wheels on its five twenty-thousand-horsepower turbines. Behind the dam the impounded waters of the Wateree River were rising into a muddy body spreading over twenty miles back.

Along with the old river banks now submerged in the waters below where Oscar and Mae stood, rising waters had swallowed the fishery there that had belonged to the Smyrls from antebellum days. Before the dam huge ocean sturgeon had swum seasonally this far to spawn. Covered with water too were cornfields Oscar’s family planted when he was a boy, including a plateau they called the Indian mound, where plows had turned up arrowheads and pottery. Also sunken under the waters for miles back were former farms and cemeteries with graves of folks, white and black. Like the native dwellers, they too had made the river valley home. As the young couple spoke of times past, it was also amazing to them to imagine the effect of the new dam once it began to generate the promises of electrical power. Ways of life were changing. What would the new world be like? Oscar and Mae talked readily on such subjects.

It was through writing, too, that the couple grew closer. Letters that Oscar wrote to her, Mae kept. He too tucked away for safekeeping letters she wrote him. They came from families of similar traditions, of similar values—people who kept mementos and correspondence. Letters from their courtship would outlast the long lives of them both.

Though for some time they were Miss Davis and Mr. Smyrl in their correspondence, the young couple grew comfortable in their friendship. Oscar took Mae home to visit his parents. She already knew them, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Love Smyrl, since Oscar’s father was on the school board that employed her. The Smyrls were pleased with their son’s new interest.

When Oscar first wrote a letter addressing May by her preferred nickname, he mistakenly spelled it Mae. She liked his spelling, however, and soon adopted it, keeping it as her preference the rest of her life. The couple grew devoted, and by the time the school year ended, they had pledged one another that they would marry when she completed her teaching contract. Married women were not favored as teachers in rural classrooms.

Oscar meanwhile tackled with zest his new work in Camden. He was determined to get ahead in his position as a cotton broker for the local firm of Frank M. Wooten. Mae understood Oscar’s ambition to support his family more securely than the way afforded by farming the earth, the only way of life open to his father in the Reconstruction South of his early manhood. Oscar was pleased to learn that Mae’s fashionable, neat, and tidy clothing was the result of her own needlecraft, in which she took great pride. A woman of gumption need never be out of style, she would say, as long as she applies her needle. Mae was a woman of gumption.

Socially Oscar followed similar steps as his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather by completing initiation into the rites of Masonry. He was drawn to the fraternal organization, he said, for character-building advantages. On May 6, 1920, he was raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in Camden’s Kershaw Lodge No. 29, Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, and remained a lifelong member. Mae approved of Oscar’s interest, for the men of her family too were Masons. She and her family, like Oscar and his, were also active Southern Baptists, so there was no question between the two of them which denominational church they would attend. Like the women of her family and his, Mae throughout her life would teach Sunday school and work with devotion in women’s missionary activities.

At the end of her school contract in May 1920, Mae left on the train for her home in Clinton, North Carolina, not to remain there but to arrange her wedding. Oscar followed her in a few days. They were married, as they wished, in a simple ceremony on Sunday, May 30, at the home of the grandmother who had reared her like a mother, with her father, John Nathan McDonald Davis, to give her away and with close kin as witnesses. Officiating was the Reverend Claudius D. Peterson, Mae’s uncle. In 1898 in South Carolina he had married her parents in Flint Hill Baptist Church. Mae had grown up like a sister to her cousins, Reverend Peterson’s children, since his family shared the Davis household. In Mae’s adolescence her father remarried so she also had a young half sister and an infant half brother at the time of her wedding.

Mae was amused when Oscar related to her the incident from his childhood when he said he would marry the unknown little girl in the photo. She recognized the image immediately when he described it to her, and she showed him a twin copy of it in her grandmother’s home. She was amused, but she was not surprised, she said, for wasn’t their union Divine Plan all along? It was a belief in destiny they both accepted.

One year later, on the day of the couple’s first wedding anniversary, their first child was born in their Camden home. They named her Lottie Mary. Her first name was given for Oscar’s mother, and the middle was not only Mae’s given name, but also that of Mae’s mother and of her grandmother Davis.

Two years later when Oscar and Mae’s first son was born, he was given with pride his father’s name. In his family such name giving seemed right and proper. Years later, however, Oscar Jackson, Jr., in adulthood reflected aloud on another effect of being a junior. Every time I spoke my name, he shook his head ruefully, "I was already marked with another man’s deeds and reputation. Yes, I was lucky growing up that my father was a good man and no one to be ashamed of! But what a hard thing I felt it as a child to have to live up to a good man, to have to be responsible through my deeds and reputation to keep his name clean also!"

Oscar Jackson Smyrl, Jr., about one year old. Courtesy of the family.

The parents had decided to call their infant son by his middle name. Jackson immediately evolved into Jack, except for schoolroom rolls and military regimens that insisted on the first name Oscar. The boy would resist efforts of those who would tag him O.J. That was the business-like nickname of his father—and not an image he had of himself. Longing for his own name reflected youthful self-awareness and a desire for individuality in a family of long traditions and a world of conformity.

Jack’s adult art career would be underway before he would humorously and professionally refine his name, at least its spelling, into Jak. When asked the reason, he would chuckle one or another offhanded explanation. One favorite story he offered with an infectious grin. All his life, he said, he saw people struggle to spell correctly his frequently misspelled last name. Since Smyrl required all its letters to pronounce it right, he could at least help out by making his first name easier to spell. By the time the quirky humorist took a pen name, he had established an individual path in other ways as well.

Chapter 3


How quickly life can end

He was born in the Roaring Twenties, grew up in the Great Depression, and reached manhood in World War II. That was the way that artist Jak Smyrl more than once condensed his biography. Indeed each of those distinctive periods of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s—when he was still Jack—influenced his character and his work. His own words and memoir notes, along with art, photos, correspondence, family memory, documents, interviews, and contemporary journalism, trace his journey through those decades. Initially a view of his surroundings in the first year of his life is a backdrop to the world that first nurtured him.

Friday, May 4, 1923, the day before Jack was born, the weekly Camden Chronicle appeared. Cheerily promoting the city of five thousand, the chamber of commerce praised its modern assets: public utilities of every kind, schools, churches, parks, electric power facilities. Founded in colonial days, Camden blended old traditions with visible signs of progress. Not all citizens, however, were enthusiastic about some changes. Most of the streets had been laid out and named by 1798, and newcomer decisions in favor of renaming the east-west streets as numbered avenues were falling on deaf ears. No, local folk would not call a familiar street Eleventh Avenue. It already had a good name—DeKalb Street for Revolutionary War hero Baron DeKalb, whose remains lay on that same street under a handsome monument.

When Jack was born at 213 DeKalb Avenue, a compromise briefly in use, Camden’s first paving program was underway. The first street to be hard coated its full length was Broad Street. The paving stretched from the front of the colored church, Mount Moriah Baptist, through the main business section and residential neighborhood northward to the city limits. As the pavement laid its equally straight, equally smooth line through distinct areas of racial, economic, and social diversity, one letter to the local press worried that easier travel for strangers would jeopardize privacy.

The Smyrls lived on the second street to be paved full length. DeKalb Avenue was hard coated from the depots of two railroads, the Southern and the Northwestern, at the town’s eastern boundary, to the Seaboard Airline Railway’s freight depot at its western boundary. Residential and business sections lay between. As the main east-west crossroad of Broad Street, DeKalb was the significant travel route that would later become part of U.S. Highway 1. Whatever it was called, sometimes it looked as deserted as a country road. At other times it brought into the town an interesting parade of horse-drawn and motorized vehicles of local and foreign travelers passing in front of the Smyrl home.

Since the late 1800s, Camden had been a social mecca for winter tourists. When northern temperatures grew uncomfortably cold, hundreds of persons privately referred to as the Yankees poured into town for extended stays. By springtime, the season when Jack was born, tourists departed. With the return of warm weather, they emptied Camden’s large resort hotels, guest homes, and seasonal residences. Winter visitors were eager to escape the intensifying southern sun whose rays they had embraced in colder months. By May business and social life in the community resumed in the hands of the people visitors privately referred to as the natives. Many natives found warm weather quite pleasant.

After the tourists left, a comfortable, folksy rhythm vibrated in community life and the local press. In May 1923, Jack’s birth month, society columns that had thrived on elaborate balls and concerts were content to note that a local woman had entertained at bridge complimenting her mother and sister. The annual May Day Festival featured a baby parade to select the prettiest baby. Nightly (except Sundays) at the downtown Majestic Theatre, black-and-white images of silent movies flickered across the screen, enhanced by music of a live orchestra. Sundays were cherished for going to church and for visiting family and friends. By custom and law, all stores, theaters, and other entertainments closed on Sundays.

During warm months evangelical revivals set up canvas tents in open fields and town lots for spirited gatherings day and night. Singing conventions brought together multiple church and community choirs to raise unified voices in hymns and old-time favorites. Some of the tents were pitched within sight and hearing of the Smyrl home. Colorful exhorters prayerfully admonished listeners to seek salvation and to stay away from wicked men, wayward women, and strong drink. Evangelist Billy Sunday had lately drawn crowds at the Camden Baptist Church, his national reputation preceding him for zingers such as Whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell. Voices of Temperance rang strong in public settings.

On pleasant weekends Daughters of the American Revolution sold homemade ice cream at the public roller-skating rink beside the Carnegie Library and the Confederate memorial. Seven miles from town the DAR had marked the spot where Baron DeKalb fell wounded at the Battle of Camden, and the ladies were raising funds to mark other sites. Camden was a community that honored its military defenders. On Confederate Memorial Day, the United Daughters of the Confederacy annually served a dinner to veterans of the 1860s. In Kershaw County when Jack was born, fifty-three boys in gray were still living in the local area, and seventy-six widows survived those who were not. World War veterans were numerous and respectfully acknowledged.

Throughout town in early May 1923, posters heralded the upcoming live appearances of the Redpath Chautauqua. The annual traveling exhibition set up its enormous tent in the grove behind the public school a block off DeKalb. Flyers announced a full week of dramatic presentations and educational lectures for spiritual and cultural renewal. During their courtship Oscar had invited Mae to accompany him to a Chautauqua performance. She was pleased and thought that his choice of entertainment showed him to be serious minded and cultivated. Since then each year they looked forward to the Chautauqua as a special treat. This year its sponsors earmarked profits to benefit the Camden Hospital. Established ten years earlier but burned two years before, the rebuilt hospital was struggling to pay operating expenses.

Not yet two weeks after Jack’s birth, while his mother was still staying close at home, horrifying tragedy devastated daily complacency. On the evening of May 17, five miles below Camden at the Cleveland School, families and friends gathered with pride to watch the children present a commencement play. Other visitors came as well, for school commencements were popular attractions, in effect pleasant community homecoming events.

The performance in the crowded, second-story auditorium was well underway when a burning oil lamp suddenly fell from its ceiling hook and crashed onstage. As flames caught stage curtains and spread steadily, the audience of three hundred began to panic. The only stairway down to the outside exit was an enclosed one, with an inward-opening door at the bottom. The rush down the unlit stairs pressed the door closed, however, and bodies jammed in the stairwell. The school burned to the ground, and with it perished seventy-seven men, women, and children who could not extricate themselves. Many more were injured jumping out of, or being thrown from, second-floor windows into the lurid darkness of night.

When word of the tragedy reached Camden in the still-dark hours of morning, Oscar’s sister Mattie Creed spoke quickly to her eldest child, Alvin. It was a stunning moment etched in his memory, a tale he would retell decades later. Look after the children, Mattie said sternly and briefly to Alvin, and she rushed from home with others to the scene of the fire. Alvin did not then know the details but knew something terrible must have happened for her to leave at such an hour and for him to be given such responsibility with his father away from home on business. Alvin had not quite turned eleven; his two sisters and brother were nine, five, and four.

During the World War, Mattie had joined the local Red Cross, raising funds, rolling bandages, and training for emergencies. Now amid the milling chaos of horrified sufferers and stunned witnesses at the Cleveland School, she gave what first aid she could. She stayed through the morning assigned to help direct families searching charred corpses in the dim hope of finding which unrecognizable body was a loved one.

Oscar reached the scene in early daylight. He described the agony of the bereaved as unspeakable. The smell of burned flesh was so oppressive that he, like others, reported his appetite suppressed for weeks afterward. The sound of weeping was agonizing. He offered his help, but, he said, what could possibly help in such circumstances?

Among those lost in the flames were in-laws of Oscar and Mattie’s sister Nannie Campbell—a twenty-year-old sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old niece. Among others who died were a number, aged three to forty-two, whose surnames connected to Oscar or Mae by birth or marriage. The Hinson family, kin to Oscar, lost an eleven-year-old daughter, a nine-year-old son, and their nine-year-old cousin. Two Arrants youths and eight persons named Davis were distant connections to Mae’s lines. So closely intertwined were the large families of Kershaw and its neighboring counties that few were the local families that did not have someone affected by the fire.

The shock of so many lives so suddenly and painfully lost or damaged traumatized the extended community and attracted national sympathy. Reflectively Mae looked at her family and held baby Jack close. Had you not just been born, she realized then and told him later, had your father not stayed home with me that night because of you, very possibly we would have gone to the Cleveland School play. We might even have taken Lottie with us. She shuttered and whispered, In a way, little one, you saved our lives. Most important, Mae and Oscar would repeat, the terrible fire made them, like many people, realize how quickly life can end and how important it is for family members to cherish one another day by day.

Similar reflections continued for decades throughout the community and in an annual memorial service at Beulah Methodist Church, where most of the Cleveland School victims lie in a mass grave. Practical responses quickly followed the fire. Disaster relief poured in spontaneously from local and national donors. Safety laws were passed to benefit many—public requirements for more than one exit, for outward-opening exit doors, and for fire drill practice. Out of tragedy a positive note was reassuring—that lives of countless others would be spared in the future.

The terrible drama of the Cleveland School fire was well known to children growing up in Jack’s generation. Cousin Luther Shaw, fourteen at the time of the tragedy, lived to age eighty-one. Though he had not been at the fire, for the rest of his life in any public gathering he carefully chose a seat at the end of an aisle and near an exit. Such became an ingrained habit of many whose lives were touched by the legacy of the fire.

Within the first year of Jack’s birth, other changes also came to his family. When Jack was three months old, Oscar and brother-in-law Ted started a business together. The August 10 Chronicle, under New Cotton Firm, announced that Messrs. Frank D. Campbell and Oscar J. Smyrl, having worked several years for Frank M. Wooten, at midmonth were opening a cotton-buying and fertilizer business in the rear of the Army and Navy store. The pair moved on amicably and with good wishes on all sides, but they had seen handwriting on the wall. Between 1920 and 1922 the boll weevil had reduced the state’s cotton production by 70 percent. Oscar and Ted in 1923 foresaw Mr. Wooten needing less help in the future. They thought their best chance would be on their own. A brief rise in cotton prices due to scarcity gave them encouragement that prices would continue to improve. Cotton, the cash crop of southern agriculture, was a risky investment. As national opportunities and markets expanded elsewhere in the 1920s, Ted and Oscar banked on their savings and training. Cotton they knew from the ground up from boyhood on their family farms, and both had worked since in merchandizing and banking that relied on agriculture.

Oscar explained, Ted and I planned to buy cotton directly from farmers, even contract it in the fields, then warehouse the bales and sell when prices went higher. From September to December of 1923, cotton ginned in Kershaw County increased significantly, and prices for a while also rose. Camden, the Chronicle stated on September 21, is said to be the leading interior cotton market of this state and pays the highest average market price. The business seemed underway in a hopeful time. In March 1924 Oscar took office as Camden city council alderman from his ward. He had run unopposed for the seat vacated by a long-serving member.

Both new responsibilities and a new baby delayed Oscar and Mae’s involvement in the local chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, constituted in April 1924 for Master Masons and female relatives. Soon they joined other Smyrl siblings and spouses already active. The Eastern Star was Camden’s first fraternal group in which women and men served together. Social adjustments to female roles were coming gradually since 1920, when women achieved national voting rights equality.

In-town activities did not stop Oscar and his family from regular visits home to Flint Hill, however, nor did they draw him from lifelong outdoor interests. At the old country place, he had

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