Randy Smith was “extremely surprised and shocked” when he realized he was being named the 2019 Iverson Riggs Citizen of the Year during last week’s Meeting and Business Expo put on by the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce.
Smith said he was surprised because the announcement was, well, a surprise, but he was also shocked because some of the things he did to receive the award were things he did just because he loved doing them.
“Any good I’ve been able to do was because of the help and support of so many others,” he said. “I didn’t do any of that for an award or any recognition, I just did it because it was the right thing to do and because I had my heart in it and was passionate about it. The rest is kind of history, but to get an award for that is kind of surprising to me.”
While “the rest is kind of history,” the work that came before the award was history, too. Smith has spent hours upon hours documenting grave sites at Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren as well as the history behind those buried there. He has also been instrumental in putting together “Tales from the Crypt” events in which visitors come to the cemetery to see performers tell the stories of some of those who are buried in the cemetery.
Smith has used funds collected from the Tales from the Crypt events to restore tombstones in the cemetery that have fallen into disrepair.
“Randy epitomizes what it means to be a community volunteer,” said former Van Buren mayor and 2018 Citizen of the Year Bob Freeman. “He does it in the background and doesn’t do it for any personal recognition. He does it because he loves it. And he thinks those that are buried there, our founders who are the foundation of our community, (he thinks) their history and their heritage needs to be preserved. And he takes it beyond just the physical preservation of monuments. He shares it with children who come up there. He teaches, he shows and he talks so it’s passed on to future generations.”
Freeman and Smith not only grew up together, graduating from Van Buren High School together, they’ve also worked together extensively to make Fairview Cemetery an integral part of such an historical city as Van Buren.
“Randy and I grew up together and then our paths crossed when I became the mayor,” said Freeman. “Having someone work and volunteer at Fairview who has such a passion as Randy has … I couldn’t have done it without him. At one time we actually had a Fairview commission but they had gotten up in age and they dissolved the commission. Randy was doing everything on his own.”
Smith said, “At a very crucial point in time, when I needed the support of the city, Mayor Bob Freeman gave me that support and helped fund what I was doing through the city council.”
The ongoing work is turning a 10-acre space in the middle of downtown Van Buren that serves as a final resting place for so many into a vibrant history lesson that tells the interesting stories of those buried in those 10 acres.
“Fairview’s like some of the other places in the community that a lot of people just aren’t aware of,” said Freeman. “They need to take the time and just drive through and park and walk around and see the beauty. In a way that’s kind of hard to say about a cemetery, but it is beautiful in what it offers you.”
And many of the things it offers are there because of Smith’s work.
“I hold him up,” said Freeman. “This is someone who’s moved from being just a consumer to a contributor in life.”
Smith, who also thanked his late wife Stacey, who passed away in January of this year, for allowing him “man, many hours of late-night study” while researching the plots and those buried in them as well as Tom Wing of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith who helped turn the Tales from the Crypt events into a reality, said the work and credit was always about others, especially about the cemetery.
“I have never put what Randy Smith wanted for the cemetery first, it was always what was best for Fairview,” Smith said. “I was always able to look at it objectively like that.”