Earl Smith ushered in a new era as Cobb County grew

Former Commission chairman dies at 93
Earl Smith helped usher Cobb County through a period of rapid growth by leading a bevy of infrastructure projects such as road building and water and sewer expansion. Smith was also instrumental in supporting many nonprofits, arts organizations and service groups.

Credit: Courtesy of Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre

Credit: Courtesy of Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre

Earl Smith helped usher Cobb County through a period of rapid growth by leading a bevy of infrastructure projects such as road building and water and sewer expansion. Smith was also instrumental in supporting many nonprofits, arts organizations and service groups.

Amidst the faded grandeur of the historic Strand Theatre on the downtown square in Marietta, Earl Smith stood in the early 2000s as a hero and along with his wife Rachel is credited with resurrecting the Art Deco gem after years of neglect.

“Without his guidance, passion, and commitment, the Strand would not exist in its current form,” said Andy Gaines, executive director of what is now the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre. “His legacy is woven into the very fabric of our organization, and his impact on the community is immeasurable.”

Earl Smith was a successful businessman, community leader and philanthropist. But his legacy as the first Republican county leader in modern times can be appreciated more broadly as he laid a foundation for transportation and water projects of regional importance as Cobb County rapidly began its transition from sleepy suburb to an urban center. He died Tuesday, Jan. 30. Smith was 93.

A celebration of life service was held Monday, Feb. 5, at Marietta’s Eastside Baptist Church, where Smith and his wife, Rachel, were founding members.

One of eight children of sharecroppers in rural Whitfield County, Smith “wanted to get stuff done,” said Sam Olens, who was chairman of the Cobb County Commission from 2002 to 2010.

Smith never sought elected office until he was voted in as chairman of the Cobb County Commission in 1984 in a Republican sweep of Atlanta’s burgeoning northern suburbs attributed, at least in part, to the popularity of President Ronald Reagan.

Olens said the change of party leadership at the top was significant for Cobb, which had long been controlled by Democrats, who also ran state government from Reconstruction to 2003.

Out of the gate in his role as commission chair, Smith pushed through a controversial bus transit service that county voters narrowly approved and continues today as Cobb Linc.

Many of Smith’s priorities were big-ticket items that he said at the time were vital to keeping up with growth. They including a massive roadbuilding program, new libraries, expansion of the local airport, and substantial upgrades to the county’s water and sewer system. He wrangled voter approval of local taxes to pay for the upgrades.

Smith failed in his bid for a second, four-year term as commission chair in 2008 and resigned 45 days before his term expired. Some said he lost due to poor voter turnout. Others said he was caught up in a backlash against all the growth and problems, such as traffic, that hit the region.

“I hope the commissioners will rise above the personal bickering we have had for the past two years,” Smith said as he bowed out early.

He never sought elected office again.

With his wife of 63 years at his side, he spent the next few decades deeply involved in the community on appointed government boards and civic organizations.

Smith also worked with developer John Williams on creating the Galleria as a county convention center. He was adamant that there should be a performing arts center in the complex, but there wasn’t the money to build one at the time.

Later, during Olens’ tenure as county commission chairman, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre was developed, and Smith worked to ensure that some of the county’s more needy students would have the artistic experience offered by the center, Olens said.

Smith was also a fundraiser for numerous community causes, including The Boys Club and Calvary Children’s Home

Debbie Abernathy, Smith’s eldest daughter, said her father never asked anyone to contribute to a cause that he hadn’t already given to himself.

Friends of the Strand, which Smith and his wife started in 2004, raised $4.5 million to renovate and reopen the theatre as a nonprofit venue for concerts, plays, weddings, private gatherings, and, of course, movies, in homage to the golden age of cinema in the 1930s.

“He learned he was pretty good at asking for money,” she said. “He contacted people that he knew through business or personal affiliations to carefully twist the appropriate arms.”

Smith “felt a real kinship” for Marietta and Cobb County, where he and his wife moved in 1959 and started a successful heating and air conditioning company that continues to operate and carry the family name, Abernathy said.

While serving as chair of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority in his post-county commission days, Smith helped push through the development of Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Canton.

Smith spent a lot of time bringing that project to fruition, said Olens, who also served as Georgia’s Attorney General from 2011 to 2016.

“The ability to start that reservoir and now have it operational was huge because of what it did for the region,” he said. “Because Cobb is able to use that water, the less reliant it is on the Chattahoochee, which is of regional significance.”

Smith graduated from Varnell High School, and attended classes at Southern Tech College. After graduating, he served in the United States Air Force and then moved to Atlanta.

He met his wife, the former Rachel Mattox, at a boarding house in the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta, where they both were living. They married in 1953 and had two daughters, Debbie and Cheryl.

Abernathy, who serves on the board of trustees of the Strand, said she believes her father was driven to give back to the community out of gratitude for all he had been given.

“He never lost sight of the fact that he had been given a lot, even though others might have thought differently,” she said. “I think when people are thankful, that builds in us the capacity for generosity.”

Smith was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Rachel Mattox Smith. He is survived by daughters Debbie (Barry) Abernathy and Cheryl Forrester (Richard); three granddaughters; three great-grandchildren; and siblings Betty Lynn Masters, Kathleen Ellis, and Hoyt Smith.