ISAAC DIXON SMITH
In His Own Words
I was born the 2nd of May 1932 in Wakefield, Louisiana, the oldest boy of twelve children. My parents, Nathanial and Sallie Smith were sharecroppers on the Barrows Plantation. As a boy, I worked alongside my parents and siblings, first on the plantation, then later our own farm right along US Highway 61, just south of the Mississippi line. As a black boy in the segregated south, my horizons were limited. Yet in 1989, I retired from the United States Army as a major general – an achievement that was beyond my wildest dreams.
The lessons and values I learned from family have sustained me my entire life. My daddy taught me pride, hard work, making-do, and respect for family and community. My mama gave me my heart. She gave me my intuition, courage, and consideration of others. She taught me to have patience with the frailties of others. ID, don’t ever slight nobody, she told me. My Aunt Daught gave me my spirit, my curiosity, my dreams. She was born Amelia Henrietta Brown. As a young girl, she worked as a housemaid for Dr. Booker T Washington while she attended classes at Tuskegee Institute. She lived with us and told me many times that she wanted me to be a great man like Dr. Washington. She expected and encouraged me to learn, go to school, and go places far away from home.
Schooling was a challenge. Black children weren’t allowed to attend the white schools– or even ride the white school buses that passed by our house every day. My parents made sure all my siblings attended school. We rose early to feed the chickens, milk the cows, and feed the hogs. After school, we took off our school clothes, and worked until sundown either in the field (the boys) or in the house (the girls). The black high school I attended consisted of an old Army barracks set up on the grounds of a local church. I was one of twelve in the first graduating class of Afton Villa High School in 1951.
I attended Southern University A & M at Baton Rouge where I majored in Agriculture while participating in the Army Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC) program and working full time on the university poultry farm. In January 1955, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science and a commission as a Lieutenant in the United States Army. Although the ROTC had prepared me to be a transportation officer (at the time, blacks were only allowed in the combat support services) the Army was beginning to integrate the officer corps, so I entered the Field Artillery Branch. I was one of the first black officers to serve in the combat arms.
The journey from lieutenant to major general was not easy. The ugly forces of prejudice and the “old boy” network worked against me. I did not have the academic and social advantages that many of my white cohorts had. Often – too often, in my early Army years, I was given the worst and hardest assignments. I suffered and overcame indignities. But for every obstacle, there were helping hands, black and white: a comrade-in-arms, a mentor, a sergeant. Even as I grew in self-confidence and technical expertise, I never forgot the lessons of my initial years in the Army: First that the more difficult the task is, the more opportunities you have to learn. And second, in the Army, as in life, you don’t make it on your own.
I married Mildred (Millie) Pierre in Tacoma, Washington, and became father to Milie’s 9-year-old son Fred, and soon to our daughter Deb and son Ron. Family life was not easy. For the next thirty-four years, the Army moved us around the world while I performed various jobs at 18 different locations in the United States and overseas. I was away constantly when the kids were little and Millie took care of things at home. It was only when I became a senior officer-and they were older- that I could spend more time with them.
I served as commanding officer at every level of command from platoon to the division level, in the United States, Europe, and in combat in Vietnam. I earned the distinction of being among the top commanders in the Army. I traveled the world, muddied my boots alongside my soldiers and rubbed shoulders with the highest echelons of society. I earned the respect of my soldiers, my peers, and my commanders. I have always had an understanding of the human dimension of leadership. When I was younger, I always had an instinctual understanding of the human dimension of leadership, which served me well. Throughout my career and my training, I learned that this was a powerful force.
The following is part of my official military biography.
Major General Ike Smith was born in Wakefield, Louisiana on May 2, 1932. He attended Southern University A & M College at Baton Rouge, where he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He also holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Shippensburg State College, Pennsylvania and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, Indiana. His military education includes the completion of the Field Artillery Basic and Advanced Courses, Fort Sill Oklahoma, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and the United States Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
As a Lieutenant, he served as Artillery Forward Observer, Artillery Liaison Officer, Motor Officer, Communications Officer, Ammunition Officer, Assistant Supply Officer, Assistant S-1, and two assignments as Executive Officer of 105mm and 155mm Howitzer Batteries.
As a Captain, he served as Battalion Liaison Officer, Battalion Communications Officer, S- 3 of a 155mm/8” Battalion, Division Artillery Assistant S-3 and three assignments as Battery Commander; one Headquarters Battery and two 155mm Howitzer Batteries.
As a Major, he served as Battalion S-3 and Battalion Executive Officer of the 2nd battalion83 rd Artillery, Inspector General of the 8 th Infantry Division, Battalion Commander of a Basic Training Battalion, Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Student at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As a Lieutenant Colonel, he commanded the 10 th Basic Training Battalion, Fort Jackson,South Carolina. In Vietnam, he served as Executive Officer 108 th Field Artillery Group, Commander, 8 th Battalion 4 th Artillery and G-3 Advisor, 23 rd ARVN Infantry Division.
In Europe he served as Battalion Commander of the 2 nd Battalion 75 th Artillery (8”). At the Pentagon, he served as Staff Officer in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. He concluded his time as a Lieutenant Colonel as a student at the US Army War College, Carlisle Pennsylvania.
As a Colonel, he served in the Pentagon as Deputy Director of the Army Equal Opportunity Program, Division Chief in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Division Chief in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. At Fort Riley Kansas, he commanded the First Infantry Division Artillery and served as Chief of Staff of the First Infantry Division.
As a General Officer, he served as Commanding General, Second ROTC Region, Fort Knox, Kentucky. In Europe, he was the Assistant Division Commander (Maneuver), First Armored Division, and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Intelligence, Armed Forces Central Europe (NATO). General Smith’s terminal assignment was as Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel, United States Army Europe.
My military awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (Oak Leaf Cluster), the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), the Army Commendation Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters), and the Army Staff Identification Badge.
As important as all these honors were, the most meaningful tributes came directly from my soldiers and staff: the plaque memorializing the ice cream machine in Vietnam; the embroidered flag of the 2 nd of the 75 th Artillery in Germany; Mama’s surprise visit orchestrated by my staff at Fort Knox, the gesture of my “twelve disciples”: 12 young draftees who extended their stay in Germany to support me through a challenging nuclear certification test.
After retiring from the Army in 1989, I continued to serve by supporting ROTC scholarship and mentoring programs for college students seeking to enter the Army. I started my own consulting business, guiding several businesses through their growth and development. I learned that leadership, commitment, responsibility, and hard work are just as important in civilian life as they are in the Army. People are people.
The highlight of retirement has been family, friends, and the freedom and time to enjoy them. Fred (who died in 2012), Deb, and Ron became fine people. Linda (Fred’s wife) and Megan (Ron’s wife) are smart and caring women. Watching six grandchildren – Beth, Jake, Whitney, Tyler, Reid, and Bennett - grow from babies to young adulthood has been a delight. And now Whit and her husband Lance have made me a great grandfather to their beautiful daughter Wren. I am proud of all of them. Retirement also allowed me to reconnect with my siblings in Louisiana (John, Vincent, and Mary) and in California (Inez, Dorothy, and Erma Jean) and their families.
My circle of family and friends continues to expand. After Millie died, I married Kathryn. She is my best friend and company-keeper. The best thing that ever happened to me, and I love her with all my heart. We have had the good fortune to enjoy our opportunities for travel, gardening, and, of course, fishing, especially with Ron and my grandkids and with my best friend Joe. Kathryn’s extended family: Mely, her daughter Ana and her husband Ernesto, and their children Mariana and Chopo, and so many more - have embraced me as “Papa Ike.” So I am doubly blessed. In 2016, we moved to San Diego, and once again I embarked on a new adventure. Whether Kathryn and I are walking in the park or on the beach, laughing with family and friends, singing and dancing to music from the 50’s, or just sitting on our balcony enjoying the beautiful view, life is good and I’m smiling.
My circumstances have changed. I’m not the same farm boy or the insecure lieutenant. But at my core, I’m still “ID.” My life today is full of family and friends (old and new), pleasures (also old and new) and the freedom to enjoy. I feel at peace. That is the best thing anybody can ever hope for. Peace of mind.
The first part of my life was about compliance, about doing what was expected by others. When you’re young you’re driven by actions, by a need for outward achievements. When I retired from the Army I was still anticipating and looking for new adventures and accomplishments. But after a while, I realized that I didn’t need that anymore. When you get old you don’t need to make a lot of noise. There are no more mountains to climb, and the challenge is to find yourself a nice plateau. Now the mission is inward. Seeing, feeling, and experiencing life in a new light, with a new intensity.
I feel privileged and I feel blessed that looking back over my life I don’t have things that keep popping up that I regret. I didn’t bring failures or disappointments forward with me. I’ve tried to make amends along the way. Now, I’m at peace to develop my spirit and my mind. I can just be still, and the squirrels and birds and the horses come up to me. I feel I’m one of them. You take that soulful place with you wherever you go. I have always found a oneness with creatures and with nature.
What can I say to my children? To my grandchildren? To my young friends?
You have to keep up with life. You can’t get behind. Keep up with yourself. You have to be able and willing to change. Life changes. Circumstances, people change. You must be able to recognize and adapt. That was the great lesson from the War College. It forced me to look differently and critically at assumptions that had been the foundation of my life up to then. There are no absolutes. Recognize that there are shades of gray that should impact your decision-making. Make peace with your decisions. Don’t linger. Don’t become a slave to regrets and second thoughts. Don’t become a prisoner to the past. Live with it and move on.
I do believe everyone should have some core values to guide them: respect for people and for nature, honesty, dependability, hard work. Good health is essential. Don’t do anybody wrong. Be a good member of your community. Keep your word. Respect others and they will respect you. You need to have a good reputation. Don’t lose sight of the essential things in life, the things that really matter. What’s inside you. Your connection with other people, with nature, with the mysteries of the universe. With your God. The outward achievement, the things, the accumulations won’t bring you peace of mind.
During one of our family get togethers in Atlanta, we went around the table, and each gave 5 phrases to describe ourselves. Then we said something about each other.
Here are the words I used to describe myself: 1. Enjoy people 2. Curious 3. Accept reality 4. Believe in myself
5. Understand the human dimension
Here are the words used by family members to describe me: 1. Storyteller 2. Solid/a rock 3. Wide/broad 4. Spiritual 5. Father
As I look at the words I used about myself, I believe they still apply to me today and have all my life. I’m still ID and I’m still smiling!
Ike died peacefully at home with Kathryn on November 25, 2023
Ike is survived by his beloved wife, Kathryn, his two children and daughter in-law: Debra Smith of Chicago, IL; Ron (Megan) Smith of Swannee, GA; and Linda Pasch of Richland, WA, six grandchildren: Elizabeth Randle of Richland, WA, Jake X Randle of Los Angeles, CA; Whitney (Lance) Whitehead of Chicago, IL; Tyler Smith of Chicago, IL; Reid Smith of Atlanta, GA; and Bennett Smith of Swanee, GA, and one great-granddaughter, Wren Whitehead of Chicago, IL.
His surviving siblings are Inez Delores Holts of Simi Valley, CA; Vincent Welch Smith of Laurel Hill, LA; John William Smith, Sr. (Dolores) of Geismar, LA; Mary Elizabeth Smith Henderson of Laurel Hill, LA; Dorothy Marie Scott of Simi Valley, CA; and Irma Jean Smith of Duarte, CA. And two sisters-in-law: Hazel K. Smith and Lennie Haynes Smith.
He also leaves behind his and Kathryn’s California family: Maria Carmen (Mely) Perez; Ernesto and Ana Jimenez and their two children, Mariana and Ernesto (Chopo); and Zoe Carrasco. And, of course, his best friend Joe Ballard and Tess.