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Prolific seminary servant dies peacefully at home


CARRIERE, Miss. (BP)–Billy Kenneth Smith died quietly in his sleep Jan. 29 at his home in Carriere, Miss.
Smith was part of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary family for 43 years, most recently serving as interim president, Jan. 1-Feb. 28, 1996.
Smith was 69 years old. He struggled his last two years with complications from cancer.
“Dr. Billy K. Smith was the model of the seminary’s core value of servant leadership,” said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley.
“In its 80 years of existence, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has had more than 12,000 graduates. Dr. Billy K. Smith stands alone in his service to this institution. Student, faculty member, trustee, provost, interim president — if there was a role to play, he did so with excellence.
“As professor and provost, he ministered to me during some of the most difficult days of my life.
“As interim president, he literally risked his life to guide our seminary family through the recent presidential transition. “King David of Israel had his mighty men, the best of the best of his soldiers. We shall remember Dr. Billy K. Smith as one of the mighty men of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the best of the best from the army of the soldiers of the Lord who passed through the gates of this school of providence and prayer.”
A student at New Orleans Seminary 1953-63, Smith completed both the master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees, specializing in Old Testament and Hebrew. His dissertation was titled, “The Problem of the Future Life in the Book of Job.”
While he was a pastor in Louisiana, first at Monte Sano Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and then at First Baptist Church in Homer, Smith was elected to the NOBTS board of trustees, serving from 1963-71. He was on the trustee executive committee and was on the presidential search committee that chose Grady Cothen as the seminary’s sixth president.
Smith was pastor of First Baptist Church in Alvin, Texas, 1971-75, when he was called by his alma mater to become a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew.
He was chairman of the division of biblical studies for many years, then was named vice president for academic affairs in 1992. Later the same year he was named provost and academic dean of the graduate faculty.
Following the retirement of Landrum P. Leavell II as president in Dec. 1995, Smith was interim president until the election of Kelley, who assumed office March 1, 1996.
“These have been the best years of my life,” Smith said in a March 1996 interview describing the four decades he was connected with New Orleans Seminary.
“Coach,” as Leavell fondly called him, always integrated his athletic abilities, and particularly his coaching techniques, with other aspects of his ministry, both in the church and in the classroom, making him a beloved pastor and professor to hundreds of church members and students.
“He was a 24-carat man,” Leavell said.
Smith is the author one of the latest additions to the New American Commentary series published by Broadman & Holman of the SBC Sunday School Board, volume 19 on Obadiah, Jonah and Amos. He also has written numerous lessons and articles for the SSB and for the NOBTS faculty journal, the Theological Educator.
“We in the Bible teaching-reaching division of the Baptist Sunday School Board have lost a true friend in the death of Dr. Billy K. Smith,” said James D. McLemore, biblical studies designer and editor of the Biblical Illustrator.
“He was a longtime writer of Bible study curriculum for adults in the Sunday school. He also had contributed nine articles to the Biblical Illustrator. The last one, ‘The Meaning of “God’s Spirit Moved,”‘ was published in the spring 1997 issue. Smith’s last writing assignment was a series of lessons on selected Psalms, set to appear in the spring 1999 issue of the Explore the Bible Commentary. He completed and mailed these lessons to his editor just three weeks before he died, McLemore said.
“Billy K. Smith was a genuine Old Testament scholar who was gifted to convey his understanding of the Scripture in a warm, understandable and loving manner. I thank God for the friendship of such a gifted writer.”
Global travel for ministry was something else Smith enjoyed. In 1966 he preached an evangelistic crusade in Fairbanks, Alaska, and another in 1970 in Seoul, South Korea. Thinking he would have to wait until after retirement for more travel, Smith said he was surprised but thankful when Leavell came to his office in 1994 and said, “Coach, why don’t you and Irlene go to Africa?” when missionaries at the International Baptist Seminary in Arusha, Tanzania, had asked Leavell to send someone to teach one semester.
Following the Smiths’ four-month stay in Arusha, NOBTS began to pursue a sister relationship with the Tanzanian seminary and started offering beginner Swahili classes. An NOBTS alumnus currently teaches at the Arusha seminary and serves as business manager, through the SBC International Mission Board.
However, Smith said his most cherished times always were moments spent with his family.
The fifth of seven children on a little farm near Spearsville, La., Smith was a star athlete and scholar in his north Louisiana schools. “Just getting by” was never enough for a Smith, he once said. Early on, he learned to do his best at whatever came his way, whether it was baseball or basketball, Hebrew or Greek, a church or a seminary.
The valedictorian of his high school class, Smith majored in physical education at Louisiana Polytechnical University in Ruston. He was a star pitcher for Louisiana Tech and after graduation pitched for “The Big 8 League,” a semi-professional team in north Louisiana. He also was accepted for a high school teaching position after graduation; he taught science and PE classes and coached his basketball teams on to many championships.
“The joy of family working together” was an emphasis he said he learned early and carried throughout his life. Raised as a Primitive Baptist in a family with high moral standards, he said his parents always wanted the best for their children.
His love of music and particularly singing led him to meet the woman who would be his college sweetheart and then his wife, the former Irlene Monroe of Glenmora, La., a math major at Louisiana Tech who completed the master of religious education degree at New Orleans Seminary in 1958. The Smiths marked their 50th wedding anniversary last year. Their five children — Kenneth, David, Joyce, Philip and Debra — and six grandchildren joined in the celebration.
The family always had breakfast and supper together, Irlene Smith said, and often ate lunch together since one parsonage was across the street from the children’s school. “Our important family time was around the table,” she said. “That time was very important to Billy and me and the children.”
Even with his busy schedule, “Billy always had time to help out around the house,” Irlene Smith said. “He was never too busy to help out with the dishes and pick up the toys.”
“I have always believed I should do the best job I could do with the job at hand,” Smith said in 1996. “God knew where I was. If he wanted me doing something else, he knew how to get me there.”
Very content as a pastor, he said was not seeking to be a seminary professor when he was called by NOBTS to join the faculty.
“And then I was happy with my job as a professor and did not seek to be chairman of the division. Then I was happy as chairman of the division and did not seek to be the provost and academic dean. Then I was happy as the provost and dean and did not seek to be named interim president.”
Concerned at his retirement about an attitude he noticed in seminary students and pastors — “trying to make connections to get to certain churches or schools, politicking to one day be in line for what they think are positions of stature” — he said he had always held firm to his belief in a sovereign God.
“If you consider that God is sovereign,” Smith said, “you just have to do what he has assigned you to do and wait on him.”
Funeral arrangements are not yet finalized. The seminary has set Feb. 27 for a campus memorial service. The service will be held at 10 a.m. in the Roland Q. Leavell Chapel.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to be made to scholarship funds in memory of Smith. The family has established funds at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and First Baptist Church, Picayune, Miss.
Anyone who would like to contribute to this fund may do so by contacting the Office of Development, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 3939 Gentilly Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70126- 4858; or First Baptist Church, P.O. Box 477, Picayune, MS 39466. For more information call 1-800-NOBTS-01, ext. 3252. The family will be notified of the names of those who donate to the fund.

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  • Debbie Moore