From the time his persona Poke McHenry was first introduced to newspaper readers in 1978 until his final regular column about 14 years later, Hubert Victor Smith dispensed thoughts from an “unreconstructed, middle-aged Huck Finn.”
Mr. Smith, 88, died Monday (Oct. 20, 2008) at a Palatka hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia. He was a longtime resident of Hilliard and Jacksonville.
Visitation will be 5 to 7:30 p.m. today at George H. Hewell and Son Funeral Home at 4140 University Blvd. S. in Jacksonville. The funeral will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at Central United Methodist Church in his native Fitzgerald, Ga., followed by burial there in Evergreen Cemetery.
Times-Union colleagues have fond memories of working with Mr. Smith.
Editorial cartoonist Ed Gamble recalled how Mr. Smith loved to share his homespun tales with anyone who would listen.
“If anyone ever wanted cheering up on a bad day, you could always get it from Vic,” Gamble said.
Mr. Smith left high school at 15 to help his parents support a growing family. He started in the newspaper business in 1939 as a reporter with the Fitzgerald Leader, becoming feature writer, photographer and editor.
After spending time as a civilian instructor with the Army Air Corps in Texas, Mississippi and Georgia during World War II, he went to work for newspapers in Alabama before joining the Albany (Ga.) Herald in 1950. He spent the next 22 years there, rising to managing editor.
Leaving the newspaper business briefly, Mr. Smith tried his hand at selling fishing bait and tackle until returning in December 1974 as a copy editor for the Times-Union. He was named head of the news desk three years later and coordinated coverage of national and international news.
During this time, the newly assigned editor of the paper’s Georgia edition was searching desperately for a columnist with little success. As a joke, Mr. Smith wrote a column under the name Poke McHenry and described himself as a veteran Georgia newsman of wide reputation who now spent his days catfishing. The editor loved the column but went nuts trying to find anyone who had heard of the writer. Mr. Smith eventually fessed up.
The column ran sporadically for about two years in Georgia before being picked up in all the Times-Union editions and published three times a week.
Thus was born the celebrity known as Poke McHenry, in demand for speeches to civic clubs, judging barbecue cookoffs, beauty pageants and other events around the area. Even after Mr. Smith retired from the Times-Union in January 1992, he continued to write the column for small newspapers around the South and make appearances.
In 1994, he published a collection of some of his best columns.
Larry M. Nichols, news production editor, said he was among the last of a breed of confident and largely self-taught newsmen.
“Poke was one of those people who always had a story to tell on almost any subject – always good-natured and often poking fun at themselves,” he said.
Franklin Young, a longtime Times-Union writer, frequently got together with Mr. Smith in retirement, commiserating over the pains of aging.
Young recalled Mr. Smith saying he would much rather be remembered as a real good newspaper reporter than as a journalist “because that was just a fancy word for a reporter.”
Mr. Smith was preceded in death by his wife, Sarah Katherine “Kitty” Smith. He is survived by two daughters, Kay Pedrotti of Milner, Ga., and Vicki White of Jacksonville; three sisters, Connie Watson, Betty Marsh and Tommie Nichols, all of Fitzgerald; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Memorials may be made to Freedom’s Way Ministries, P.O. Box 8097, Jacksonville, FL 32239.