The Road To Success
College wasn’t even on his radar when Dr. Willie H. Smith, FSU ’82, was growing up as the youngest of eight children born to tobacco farmers in Elizabethtown, N.C.
But higher education ended up being the golden ticket to a distinguished career in the federal government – taking him to cities around the globe – and providing inspiration for a new book.
Dr. Smith is the senior procurement executive for the United States Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. In 2022, he published his autobiography, “Eighth Chop from the Top,” a reference to his days toiling in the tobacco fields and as the baby of the family.
“It takes readers from the farm to the highest levels of the federal government,” according to the book’s description. “It is a compelling story of culture, environment, race and a range of encounters of a Black man in the United States during times of opportunity and change.”
The book is dedicated to Dr. Smith’s late father and mother, Roe and Sarah Smith, and his wife and two daughters. Dr. Smith also acknowledges his siblings and mentors for their wisdom and guidance.
In a phone interview from his suburban Maryland home, Smith, 62, said his book, which takes readers through the decades – from the segregated 1960s to present times – and is also about lessons he learned along the way. He seeks to encourage others to stay the course to fulfill their goals.
He walks the talk – utilizing his experience and connections to counsel small-business owners and also help students of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) obtain paid internships. After all, when he was a student at Fayetteville State, such an opportunity – with the U.S. Department of the Navy – helped finance his education and launch his career.
Since 2010, Dr. Smith has made a mark in his high-level position with the USDOT in Washington, D.C.
“It’s interesting to watch the President in a press conference talking about something like a new infrastructure bill,” he said, “and then the next morning, major aspects that project have landed on your desk.”
He oversees approximately $8 billion in federal contracts, as well as policy oversight and implementation for more than $100 billion in federal grants, always maintaining a keen eye on equality and inclusion. In addition, he manages implementation of all DOT procurement policies, regulations and standards.
Before that, Smith served in a variety of key positions for the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Navy.
He has received numerous honors, including the DOT Secretary’s Award, FHWA Administrator’s Award for Superior Achievement, the Navy’s Civilian Meritorious Service award, the Secretary of the Navy’s Acquisition Reform award, and the Department of Defense Acquisition Excellence Award.
While pursuing his career, Dr. Smith learned that he “had a knack for college.” After he had become the first generation in his family to attend college – and receive his bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Fayetteville State, he went on to earn two master’s degrees and his doctorate from various universities.
“When I have academia in my life, other parts of my life work better,” he said.
THE ROAD LEADS HOME
Dr. Smith recalls growing up in rural Bladen County – and the ties that bind. In addition to farming tobacco, corn and cucumbers, his father worked in a factory and would bring children’s books home for his youngest to read.
“I remember getting books like The Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats, and The Gingerbread Boy,” Dr. Smith wrote in his book. “We had a wooden heater in the kitchen … I remember sitting behind the heater reading those books and feeding my imagination as I looked at the brilliant colors and devoured the words on the pages.”
To this day, Dr. Smith says one of his most prized possessions is a set of World Book Encyclopedias that his father sacrificed to buy.
Faith, family and farming are common threads in his storytelling – particularly in the earlier chapters – and an appreciation for simpler times.
Dr. Smith still makes regular trips back to Elizabethtown, and smiles when he thinks about recently enjoying lunch with some of his former teachers and mentors who believed he was college material. They still call him by his middle name, Herbert. Dr. Smith said he chose Fayetteville State in part because it was within an hour of his home.
At Fayetteville State, he thrived – becoming involved in Greek life as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., and writing a column about student issues called “Willie Speaks” in The Voice newspaper.
“He always stood on campus as someone you knew was destined for greatness!” said classmate Maynard Smith, FSU ’82. “I have followed his career from his internship with the Navy to his current career with the Department of Transportation. I am extremely proud of what he has done with his career, family and his support of Fayetteville State University.”
Maynard Smith is Maryland Business Engagement Manager for US Wind, Inc., based in Baltimore. He is also president of the DC Metro Chapter of FSU’s National Alumni Association, of which Dr. Willie Smith is an active member.
Dr. Smith said he will always be grateful to FSU for laying the foundation for a career that’s been both exciting and fulfilling. For taking him on a journey he would have never expected as a child working in the fields in the grueling Carolina summers.
He believes it’s important to never forget from whence we came. For him, he will always be the son of tobacco farmers, “The Eighth Chop From The Top.”
“If I ever look in the mirror,” he said, “and see someone else, I’ll worry.”
Excerpts from “The Eighth Chop From The Top,” by Dr. Willie Smith:
“I lived on a farm down a long dirt road, and after school, I went home to feed the pigs and gather tobacco and corn in the evenings. I had a combination of responsibilities and self-esteem issues that kept me from thinking that I was ‘good enough’ to participate in the after-school activities. I certainly did not have enough confidence to believe that any girl would want to go on dates with me. This is why I never attended my junior or senior proms. These days, I tell people that the closest I ever got to a prom was the movie ‘Carrie.’ I assume that our prom was far different than the one in the movie.”
“During my fourth semester, I had decided that I wanted to pledge a fraternity. … After studying the history of all four fraternities on campus, I quickly settled on Alpha Phi Alpha. … I learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ambassador Andrew Young, Jesse Owens and many others were members of this organization. I had become a huge admirer of Dr. King. I knew most of his speeches and was in awe of how he was able to motivate masses toward a common and noble purpose.”
“My first meeting at the White House for business purposes occurred shortly thereafter (accepting the DOT position). I remember a couple of people riding down on the elevator with me to give me some final information on the upcoming briefing. There was a car out front waiting to drive me to the meeting. It felt a lot like the situation many years ago in Switzerland when I was flown from air base to air base.”