New trade school OK'd in Winn
'Gold star' in career, says retiring State Senator Mike Smith

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

Mike Smith almost jumped from his chair, pounded his desk and cried, "That's the gold star in my career as Senator!" as he listened to the message on his phone that would not stop ringing.

"We got the Trade School!" he exclaimed. The message was quickly relayed to a round-robin of associates, including Huey P. Long Trade School Director Danny Keys, who were vitally interested in the expansion of the Winnfield-based vocational-technical school.

We were in his office at the P.K. Smith Motor Co. in Winnfield, doing an interview to review his career as State Senator for District 31--ending this month as he reaches the 12 year, three term limit and hands off the post to his cousin, Gerald Long of Natchitoches, elected in October, and due to take office with the new administration, to join the first Legislative session which convenes on Monday, March 31.

Smith said land had been acquired for the new school on property near the Winnfield Senior High School on U.S. Highway 167 on the north side of Winnfield, and architectural work had begun as long as ten years ago. But, Bond Commission funding for the actual construction was never forthcoming until the last days of the Senator's term in office.

The school facility will be relocated from the 60-plus year-old campus, crowded near downtown Winnfield that has long since outgrown its services. Smith, and State Representative Jim Fannin in a separate interview, said the new school will contain badly needed facilities for training workers for today's business and industry.

Mike Smith is a native of Winnfield, where he graduated from high school in 1966, a classmate of now-Representative Jim Fannin, and Trade School Director Danny Keys. They were students of Russell Sullivan, vocational agriculture teacher at Winnfield High, whom Smith credits with developing the character of the "country boys, with agriculture backgrounds."

Smith graduated from Northwestern State University in 1970 with a degree in agribusiness, and taught vocational courses in Winnfield for two years. his father, P.K. Smith, worked as a car salesman, operated the local movie theater and other businesses, and his mother was a beautician who began a dress shop business, starting in their home.

In 1973, while Mike was still teaching, his father approached him and suggested that they purchase the automobile dealership. He was able to secure financing, and by February, 1974 the family acquired what has become P.K. Smith Motors in Winnfield, a dual dealership with franchises for both General Motors and Chrysler Corporation products.

At one point, Smith points out, members of their family were operating a motel, restaurant, drive-in theater, dress shop and beauty shop, a Gibson's franchise store, and the auto dealership.

"We didn't have holidays," Mike said. "No Fourth of July."

The dealership will mark 34 years at the end of January, Mike said, and "It has been a wonderful life," which he credits to "hard working family members, many wonderful employees, and customers who have made it possible."

At the annual Winn Chamber of Commerce membership banquet in November, Smith was presented a special award for community service, and his work as a state senator during the past 12 years. Classmate and long-time friend, Danny Keys, presented the award, and related that Mike had political skills even while in high school--negotiating vote deals with FFA groups from other schools in Winn Parish that resulted in Keys' being elected president of the Parish FFA organization.

Mike's father, P.K. Smith once sought political office, running for Parish Tax Assessor, losing to John Y. Bell in the 1940s. An uncle, Hardy (Junior) Smith, also had political ambitions, seeking, but losing a race for Sheriff of Winn Parish. The family's skills lay in business, which they pursued with success in several areas.

During the middle 1990s, a group of friends, including Mike, became concerned about political issues in Louisiana, and met together several times, concluding that they needed to support someone for office who shared their concerns. They eventually decided that Mike should be the one. He agreed to run, and was elected.

In 12 years in the Louisiana Senate Mike served on the Agriculture committee, and became chairman in 2000, holding that post until his retirement this year. He served on the Commerce committee, as vice chairman from 1996 to 2000, and on Revenue and Finance beginning in 1997.

Smith expresses pride in the services he has been able to render for his constituents, and for the state as a whole, securing funds for water and fire protection districts in rural communities, securing legislation benefitting the forestry and agriculture communities in Louisiana, and others.

As chairman of Agriculture Committee, he served on a national panel of legislators advising the U.S. Congress on legislation needed in the states.

Smith said he was mildly offended during his early Senate career when then-Senate President Randy Ewing of Jonesboro told him one day, "At first, you'll feel like you're in a war here, but then you will appreciate being in a fraternity of 34 members who really have a lot to do with the good of this state."

"I didn't like the idea of a 'fraternity'," Mike said. "I thought that was something rich kids did at college." But, as he gained more knowledge, the friendships he made with legislators from all parts of the state, and other states, have been treasured. He mentioned colleagues Walter Boasso, who he said might have been Governor; Tommy Casanova, a three-time All-American at LSU, who became a special friend in the Senate, and others. "I love those guys," he said.

Before leaving I asked, "Is there a future in politics for Mike Smith." He dropped his head and sat silent for a long spell, and finally said, softly, "I don't know."

He went on, "I'll be in politics in the background, helping get things done."

In the meantime, he's selling cars on the corner at Highway 167 and 84.