Michael Lee Smith, 51: Destined to be a funeral director

There was little doubt about what Michael Smith would be when he grew up.

As a kid, he hung around Sellers Brothers Funeral Home in Newnan, doing whatever to learn the business. He didn't play too much, but he'd appear when there was a dead animal to dispose of in Rocky Hill, the west Newnan community he grew up in.

"He'd hold a funeral and bury things in his yard," said Tamarkus T. Cook, a godson who lives in Newnan.

Relatives say he was born to be a funeral home director. At 19, he realized his dream. In 1977, with the help of his late father, Robert Smith, he founded Sellers-Smith Funeral Home on Greenville Street in Newnan. There, he adopted a saying that reflected the type of service he strove to provide grievers.

"People will forget what you do for them and what you say to them," he'd say. "But they will never forgot how you make them feel."

And maybe that's why the parlor area at Sellers-Smith served as a gathering place of sorts for Newnan blacks. People dropped by often. They might not even know or be related to the deceased. Moreover, there might not even be a service scheduled.

"The environment at the funeral home was really warm," said Vernon M. Strickland, an Atlanta attorney who grew up in Newnan. "People would come just to sit down and spend time with Michael. Growing up, I was a fan because of the way he carried himself professionally, and the way he ran the funeral home there."

In the early 1990s, Mr. Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Slowly and steadily, the disease took its toll. He walked with a cane, then a wheelchair and finally a mobile wheelchair. On Feb. 25, Michael Lee Smith, of Newnan, died from complications of the disease at his home. He was 51.

The funeral will be held at 2:30 Sunday at St. Smyrna Baptist Church in Newnan. A visitation and musical celebration will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Newnan. Sellers-Smith Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Mr. Smith was a 1976 graduate of Newnan High. A year later, he graduated from Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Science and apprenticed at Sellers Brothers Funeral Home, which by then had relocated to Atlanta.

According to the Newnan Times-Herald, Mr. Smith was a stalwart in the community. He served two terms on the Coweta County Board of Education. He sat on the board of First South Bank and the Newnan Senior Citizens Center.

He was a member of numerous organizations that included: Masonic Lodge No. 299; the Newnan Kiwanis Club; the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce; the Newnan Optimist Club; the local chapter of the NAACP; and associations related to his profession.

Outside of his career and civic duties, his primary interest centered on Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. He was a deacon, Sunday school superintendent and trustee board member. He enjoyed church music and attending revivals.

When he was young, Mr. Strickland remembers how Mr. Smith would address young people. "How's it going doctor?" he'd say, or he'd call a kid a lawyer or a judge.

Today, Mr. Strickland is an attorney with Holland & Knight in Atlanta.

Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Deloris Smith of Newnan; two sons, Benjamin Smith and Jeremy Smith, both of Newnan; and four grandchildren.