Harry Lee Smith tried for several years to retire as president of Emerald Coast Federal Credit Union.
He expressed a desire for someone else to have the opportunity to help as he had, to serve as he had, to enjoy and be blessed as he had.
He just couldn’t find any takers, not as long as Smith agreed to return to the fold.
So, finally, after 45 years, Smith made the decision easy, formally resigning in a letter to the members of the board of the credit union in order to preempt any attempts to back him down from his decision.
Smith simply thought it time another had the joy and blessing of service.
“I just enjoy helping people,” Smith said about why he stayed in the volunteer position for 45 years. “We have great employees and there is really a charitable heart in that place. That kind of stuff I enjoy.
“That is the only bank left that is a hometown bank run by local people. I was lucky before that nobody wanted to take my place. I wanted to let other people have the opportunity to serve that I did. The credit union will go on.”
Smith’s DNA surely contains a human-assistance chromosome. One nurtured without fanfare or attention, but always with a gentle smile and kind word.
He has long been the familiar face of Uncle Sam during Independence on the Coast celebrations.
He is known for his work with cars, changing oil or other small repairs, for those in need throughout the community.
Emerald Coast Federal Credit Union officials made sure Smith’s retirement from the board did not impact his willingness to do minor work on repossessed cars.
He is heavily involved in his First Baptist Church family, leading blood drives and other outreach events. He is a rabid booster for Port St. Joe athletics and the schools.
Smith also serves on a board at Sacred Heart Hospital.
“He never thinks of himself,” said Melissa Ramsey. “He is a friend to many and he’s a true friend, he walks the walk. His actions speak louder than his words and he would just as soon not speak any words.
“He does those little extra things to bring joy in people’s lives and he does it without fanfare, without wanting any attention.”
After his retirement from the St. Joe Paper Company after 44 years, Smith and community volunteer have fit as well as his familiar brightly-colored Polo shirts and ramrod-straight carriage.
“It’s a real blessing to help people,” Smith said. “You never run out of things to do if you volunteer.”
That ethos was imbued in Smith as a young child.
His father passed when he was six. He was an only child and his mother worked hard to make ends meet.
He has never forgotten the kindness of Mr. Costin at St. Joe Hardware, who brought his mother in and told her whatever she needed, let him know.
He has also not forgotten the generosity of the folks he worked with and for at the old Dime Store in his youth. They made sure he got meals, had the little things a boy needs.
“I would never have made it except for the people in that dime store,” Smith said. “I will never forget Mr. Costin. Today I have sense of loyalty to St. Joe Hardware. I was raised to work.”
The credit union, originally the St. Joe Papermakers Credit Union, to be joined by the Gulf County Teachers Association, becoming the Community Credit Union in 1998 and later Emerald Coast, was founded with similar beliefs.
Employees helped customers, who until the teachers joined consisted of St. Joe Paper Company employees and immediate family, balance their checkbooks.
The credit union established a phone exchange, called Timber Chatter and later Sandy Shores, which provided host of services.
Customers called the number, dialed in a password and could check balances, accounts. The exchange spread to Wewahitchka, Mexico Beach and Eastpoint.
The bookkeeping was all single-entry and the bookkeeper typically took the books home with her to finish the daily accounting.
“They know people by name there,” Smith said. “You are not a number. We have done it in a small town. We have survived mergers. We have survived.”
For a deposit as small as $5, one was a member. The board of directors, all volunteers, decided loans.
“I think it was very tough for him to retire because he wants to help people so much,” Ramsey said. “It was a sensitive issue for him. He feels such an obligation to people and to his community.
“What a blessing the community of Port St. Joe has. He is so graceful. He is that caring and compassionate of a man. He always deflects and he is so involved in his community, changing oil for older ladies, putting money in people’s accounts when they need it.”
But times change.
The credit union has a website and an expanded building and more than 4,000 customers. The credit union must charge federally-mandated fees and data processing has replaced single-entry accounting. There are moves afoot to make other changes in how directors are selected and paid and Smith sees that as the “ruin” of credit unions.
“We strive to offer all the services that all credit unions have,” Smith said. “I will continue to help them but I don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day operations.
“The credit union was an opportunity to help people. I want to see that hometown (feel) survive.”