Benny Smith was still wearing his king's crown Thursday afternoon hours after it was placed on his head. The kids at West Orange-Stark Elementary School loved it. For 33 years he has been doing things for the kids in the West Orange-Cove school district. He’s been a teacher, assistant principal and principal in the same district ever since he graduated from Prairie View A&M in 1980. He’ll retire when the school year ends in early June.
Thursday the school had a celebration to pay tribute to the principal. He started the day giving the announcements in his office. Then came the interruption—a big interruption. ‘My office just swelled with people. I actually don’t know who put (the crown) on,’ he said. Before he could realize what was going on, he was whisked into the hall. ‘It was just filled with kids all up and down the hall. It was tremendous.’ He had his own parade down the halls of the new school that opened three years ago. That kind of love was worth all the years and late hours of being an educator. ‘That was the biggest payroll today. It was huge,’ he said. Teachers and his colleagues, some now retired, had a surprise party for him after the students left.
Smith grew up in Hooks, Texas, 12 miles from Texarkana. ‘It had 2,545 people when I left in 1976,’ he said. He went to Prairie View to become a teacher. He was ready to graduate and went to a job fair at the college. Hughie Allen and Marion Forston from West Orange-Cove were there recruiting new teachers. They targeted him and convinced him to come to Orange. He asked about the weather. ‘Oh, the weather in Orange, Texas, is fine,’ they told him. He took the job. ‘It was smokin’ (hot) here’ when he arrived.
Smith made a wrong turn at the beginning. He was traveling east on Interstate 10 and went left on 16th Street. When he reached the school, he walked inside. It was Little Cypress-Mauriceville High. They gave him directions south to the West Orange-Cove school on Green Avenue. In 1980, it was the East Campus of the high school serving ninth and tenth grades. Andrew Hayes, who later became superintendent, was the principal. ‘Roger Dale Dardeau’ and Herman Lewis were the assistant principals, he said. Through the years Smith would teach shop, history and drafting at the high school, junior high and middle school. He recalls that one year at the high school he didn’t have a permanent classroom. When the bell rang, he would go to another room to teach the next class. He became an administrator in 1988.
When he retires, he might get to sleep later. For years he has awakened before 4 a.m. and been at the school at 5 a.m. He’ll stay until 6 p.m., or even 10 p.m. or later if an activity is going on. On Sundays, he gets up early for church. He and his wife are active members at Salem United Methodist
Smith married his college sweetheart, Iberia, in 1983. They have sons ages 25 and 21. When asked if he has grandchildren, he says ‘no,’ then pauses. ‘I taught moms, also the daughters and now the daughters have kids. I guess those are my grandkids,’ he said.