Lynda Wolfe Smith Receives 2018 NEA-Retired Distinguished Service Award

Lynda Wolfe Smith and Sarah Borgman

Lynda Wolfe Smith of Georgia Association Education-Retired says she’s heard the word no “a lot of times” but last week, on the final day of the two-day NEA-Retired Annual Meeting, which last week drew 441 delegates to St. Paul, Minn., Smith heard yes—not once, but twice.

She heard her first yes last Thursday morning when she was announced as the 2018 recipient of the NEA-Retired Distinguished Service Award. The achievement is the organization’s highest honor.

Smith is the 15th of 16 children born to a close family in Mobile, Ala., and union activism runs in her blood. She is the daughter of a third-generation union president and the granddaughter of a regional union representative who served in the late 1800s. Smith’s mother helped to register voters.

Known to say “fight is so engrained in me,” Smith—whose second yes came later in the day when she was elected to the NEA-Retired Executive Board—told Annual Meeting attendees that she credits her parents for influencing her union work.

Meant to be an Educator

As a student Smith once considered following the career paths of four sisters who became nurses. But several of her teachers suggested she set her sights on education. She put thoughts of nursing aside and enrolled in Alabama State University where she majored in history and minored in political science.

Smith’s final push toward education came from Ruth LeFlore Ward, the wife of Horace T. Ward. In the 1950s, Ward became the first African American to challenge racial discrimination at the University of Georgia after the institution denied Ward admission because he was black. Some two decades later, Pres. Jimmy Carter appointed Ward to Georgia’s federal bench, making him the first African American to serve in that position.

Continuing in the tradition set by her mentor’s husband, Smith—who began teaching in 1975—has broken barriers of her own.

In addition to being the first African American woman to receive the NEA-Retired Distinguished Service Award, and the first African American Teacher of the Year for Junior Achievement Inc. Smith’s leadership skills earned her the role as the first president of Thurgood Marshall Middle School. She also worked with The Atlanta

Project, an initiative created by Pres. Jimmy Carter to discuss solutions to the city’s blight and poverty.

As an active educator, Smith gave her students whatever was required to help them learn. Sometimes it was shoes. Other times it was a lesson not found in any textbook, such as the right way to cut a pineapple and the experience of sewing flags representing countries from around the world. With Smith leading the way, her students won Model U.N., the Stock Market Game, and a variety of social science fairs.

Smith has also made her voice heard and her influence felt outside the classroom. She spoke out at the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, backing teachers and exposing corruption within the district. Smith also challenged the dress code, which prohibited the wearing of African head wraps. When the district retaliated with involuntarily moving Smith to another school she spoke out again, exposing a $1 million expenditure that was intended to cover legal expenses in a sexual harassment case against the district’s chief legal counsel.

In 2004, Smith made plans to retire early based on what turned out to be erroneous information provided by the district. When she tried to rescind her resignation, after realizing that leaving on her original date would cost her $20,000, the district forced her out. She sued and won.

Smith was elected president of GAE-Retired in 2014, and “she had her battles cut out for her,” said NEA-Retired President Sarah Borgman, who presented Smith with the Distinguished Service Award. As GAE-Retired president, “she relentlessly kept advocating for what she felt and knew was right. [She was] the glue that held GAE-Retired together through tough times,” Borgman said. “Her indomitable spirit changed problems into challenges that ended in solutions.”

Just last year—three years after completion of a four-year term as GAE-Retired president—Smith reported to the frontlines to help Georgia fight a ballot initiative that would have removed local control of public schools, “She is an inspiration and a power with which to reckon. She talks the talk, but more importantly she walks the walk,” Borgman said while presenting the award.

Current GAE-Retired President Karen Solheim agrees. “The world is a better place because Lynda is in it,” Solheim says.

Completely surprised by the honor, which brought her to tears, Smith told attendees that she never expected to be recognized for being what she thinks of as “the gnat in the room.”