By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(May 10, 2018) Just before former U.S. Air Force Airman First Class John Dale Smack was handed a microphone last Thursday during a ceremony honoring service members in Ocean City, his wife of more than six decades told him what to say: that it was a good experience and he learned a lot.
John, who turned 84 on Monday, couldn’t quite hear Leola and instead explained to several hundred attendees why he served for only a few years and then went home – he had to go see about a girl.
The story of John and Leola Smack dates back to the early 1940s, when the couple met in first grade at the Flower Street School in Berlin, currently the multipurpose building.
“My first beating was because of her,” John said with a laugh, sitting next to Leola at their Branch Street home of more than 50 years.
“It wasn’t until about sixth grade or seventh grade we started noticing each other,” Leola said. “I think it was in the ninth grade we started dating, and he carried me to my first prom.”
After high school, Leola enrolled at Bowie State University, then called the Maryland State Teacher’s College, and in 1956 returned to teach, ironically, first grade at Flower Street.
John, meanwhile, enlisted in the Air Force and served as a military policeman in Germany during the Korean War.
They corresponded during that time, but John wasn’t able to see his old school sweetheart until he was properly discharged.
“I was working in Ocean City and called home and my aunt said, ‘You had someone come to look for you … John Dale is home,’” Leola said.
“I said, ‘Ohhh,’” she added with a laugh. Although far part, Leola said everyone at college had gotten to know John through her stories. “We reconnected right away, because we had gone together through high school.”
John and Leola were married a year later and have spent their lives together in Berlin, and both became pioneers of their community.
He worked for 52 years as a school bus driver in Worcester County – famously without taking a single sick day – and during the 1970s broke the color barrier as the first African-American town councilman in Berlin.
Leola, in 1967, became the first black schoolteacher at Buckingham Elementary School. She retired from teaching in 1992 after 35 years, although she continued to substitute, offer in-home tutoring and lead an afterschool program at her church.
The Smack’s three children were also trailblazers.
Their oldest son, John Dale Smack III, was the first African-American chief judge of the orphan’s court in Maryland. In 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed him as state parole commissioner, where he continues to serve.
Daughter Velda Henry was the first the African-American human resources supervisor at the Worcester County Board of Education. She retired in 2016.
Their youngest son, Kevin Smack, followed in his mother’s footsteps as a Bowie graduate and schoolteacher for nearly three decades. He currently teaches at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
John and Leola also have four grandchildren and in August will have been married for 61 years.
All their children were at the ceremony last Thursday near the Ocean City Firefighter’s Memorial on the Boardwalk, where 31 retired servicemen and nine on active duty were honored.
Leola recalled her husband’s nervous moment at the microphone that turned into a tender salute.
“I told him what to say, and he didn’t say it!” she said. “I just told him to tell them it was a wonderful experience that you had, your four years in the Air Force, and to thank them. And he talked about me!”
John, laughter still in his voice, blamed poor hearing and said he couldn’t help but think about his wife.
“When I looked at her for help, she had gone back and sat down!” he said. “But it came to me to talk about her.
“It was a great experience, [serving], because you get a chance to see a lot of things that you wouldn’t if you had stayed. It was very educational,” he said.
But, he’s glad he came back home when he did.
“Now? Yes. You’re not going to catch me on that one!” John said with a laugh, his wife at his side, still smiling, even after 60 years.