Willou Smith, trailblazing Republican, dies at 82

Willou Smith, a trailblazing Republican legislator, businesswoman, state school board member and advocate for the arts, died at 82.

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Willou Smith, a trailblazing Republican legislator, businesswoman, state school board member and advocate for the arts, died at 82.

Former Democratic governor Roy Barnes recalled an era when legislative members from both parties played good-natured tricks on each other under the Gold Dome.

Rep. Willou Smith, a Republican, was always in the middle of that, he said, chuckling.

“She and Bill Lee — Bill was the chairman of the House Rules Committee — she was always pulling something on him. She would tell him someone was out there and was really angry and wanted to see him about something. Of course, Bill would go look for them and they wouldn’t be there.”

But Smith had much more than a playful sense of humor working for her.

A House member representing Brunswick from 1987 to 1997 and, later, a state school board member, Smith blazed trails and served as a community activist and volunteer, local and state politician, successful businesswoman, and she was a professional musician (harpist).

“She was as charming as anybody could be and she was smart as a whip as well,” said longtime friend and mentor former Georgia GOP U.S. Senator Mack Mattingly.” She was just a person you wanted to be around.”

Smith forged ahead at a time when women leaders, especially from rural Georgia, were fewer on the ground in both business and politics. And she mentored and encouraged other women, drafting more than a few into the nascent local Republican party.

“Remember, this wasn’t New York. It wasn’t even Atlanta.” said son Cal Smith. “So she was a real unicorn in (coastal Georgia’s) Glynn County.”

“She fed off of people and had a high energy level that really resonated when she walked into a room,” he said. “I think that’s what ultimately got her into public service.”

Also influential on her life were her father, a former Brunswick mayor and successful businessman, and mentors like Mattingly.

Willou Smith died May 9 from complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 82. Smith is survived by her husband Bill, son Cal Smith and daughter Leigh Ann Barrick and their spouses, and by her sister Jimmie Claire North and three grandchildren. A celebration of her life is set for June 15 on St. Simons Island.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Willou Smith

Smith not only led the pack as a Glynn County commissioner and state lawmaker, but she was also a pragmatist who reached across the aisle to serve her constituents.

One of her biggest triumphs was securing funding for the Sidney Lanier Bridge project connecting Brunswick and the Golden Isles. It needed to be raised to help facilitate maritime traffic in and out of the port of Brunswick.

“She was one of very few Republicans who voted for (Democrat) speaker Tom Murphy’s budget,” said Cal Smith. “Murphy said essentially that if you vote for my budget I’ll get you the funding for the bridge. She took a lot of slings and arrows for that.”

But Murphy made sure the funding came through.

But she stayed true to historically-bedrock GOP principles like limited government and a robust role for the private sector, pushing coastal business and industrial development along with protection for the environment.

A strong education advocate, Smith fought for such initiatives as charter schools while a member of the State Board of Education. Notably, she was one of three members Barnes kept when he replaced the board in 1999.

Smith also trod fresh ground as a businesswoman, as she and her real estate-executive husband became one of the earlier Burger King franchisees in 1972. She helped pioneer drive-through lanes.

Former Democratic State Rep. Jeanette Jamieson became a friend who joined in on Smith’s fun.

“I can’t think of a time more funny than when Willou tried to quit smoking,” she recalled.

She kept an apartment in Atlanta during the legislative sessions. Jamieson was with her there when Smith’s husband arrived unexpectedly. Smith quickly stubbed out a cigarette and shoved it in a drawer, but the attempt to smother the evidence unraveled when smoke began wafting from the drawer top.

Family and friends say her years-long battle with Parkinson’s didn’t dampen her intellectual acumen or sunny disposition. And while a lover of politics, she was repelled by today’s highly charged partisan environment.

“There was no such thing as hatred then,” Jamieson said. “Not like now.”