Family leaves legacy of optimism

Recognizing Black History Month with lessons from the past about family, perseverance and progress.

February 7, 2020 | By: Ann Baker

For Sam Smith, Black History Month is a time to relish in all that has changed for the good.

“It’s a time of remembrance and of teaching,” he said.

Smith is a Colorado native who has worked at Denver Water for 22 years, first as a young man fresh out of high school in the print shop and mail room, and now, with a degree in computer networking, as an IT support senior specialist.

“I like the versatility of the state itself,” Smith said. “From the mountains to the fishing, from the lakes to the snow, there’s always a reason to be doing something outside in Colorado.”

Sam Smith’s great-uncle Herman Lawson
Sam Smith’s great-uncle Herman Lawson flew for the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who fought for the United States during World War II. Lawson named his airplane Ace of Pearls after his wife, Pearl Lee Johnson. Photo credit: Unsung Heroes Living History Project.

 

Smith’s mother, Linda Smith, worked in Denver Water’s Human Resources department for 15 years before retiring in 2007. Originally from Marshall, Missouri, her parents moved to Denver because Marshall was getting too small for their family of seven kids, including two sets of twins. Smith’s grandfather got a job in a Denver rail yard but died soon after they arrived; from there, Smith’s grandmother, Eva (Johnson) Gray, became a nursing assistant at Children’s Hospital.

Gray is now 96 years old and working on documenting their family’s history for future generations.

Smith reflects on one family story she passed along about a fighter plane affectionately called “Ace of Pearls.” Gray’s sister and Smith’s great-aunt, Pearl Lee Johnson, married a Tuskegee Airman named Herman Lawson. Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American pilots who fought for the United States during World War II. Lawson named his airplane Ace of Pearls after the love of his life.

From his mother’s family, Smith learned how to remain optimistic in the face of change. His maternal grandparents took a leap of faith by moving to a new state, to the growing, bustling city that was 1968 Denver.

“It was hard for them to settle down in an environment that was new,” Smith said. “They hadn’t figured it all out, but they were together for those tough first moments. They were able to thrive under pressure.”

And they kept looking on the bright side.

“They weren’t afraid of the unknown because they knew that good things happen in all reasons and all walks of life,” Smith said.

Smith’s paternal family originally lived in Texas, but they moved to Denver in the 1940s when his grandparents were a young couple with six kids.

Smith grew up near Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, but later moved several miles to the south, where he attended George Washington High School. Now Smith has three kids of his own, ages 6, 11 and 23.

The most important history lesson he’s learned, an attribute he has tried very hard to pass along to his children, is that “family time is very, very important,” he said.  “And being a part of a family is very important. We should be able to talk, able to disagree, but still be able to love.”

Sam Smith stands smiling in front of his desk by his computer.
Sam Smith is a Colorado native who has worked at Denver Water for 22 years, first as young man fresh out of high school in the print shop and mail room, and now, with a degree in computer networking, as an IT support senior specialist. Photo credit: Denver Water.

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