Tri-County Telephone story told in memoirs

Published 1:22 am Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lifestyles & Features Editor

It’s been nearly a year since Cecil Odell Smith died, but his legacy now includes a book he completed shortly before his death.
Smith was facing terminal cancer, yet he persevered and finished the book he had long dreamed of writing. The end for him came July 7, 2009, but with the publication of “By Finger and By God,” the life story of Smith, dubbed the “Tri-County Telephone Man,” captures a unique perspective on life in eastern North Carolina.
“He wanted to do two things with this book,” said his son, Cecil Smith Jr. “He wanted to capture a bit of the rural life … and he wanted to capture the history of the electrical and telephone cooperatives in North Carolina.”
The elder Smith did just that. The first five chapters of the book are devoted to life as the author saw it growing up in Beaufort County. Born in 1922, in a tenant house on a farm belonging to Frank Winstead, Smith knew first-hand what it was like to do without electric lights or a telephone. The family “made do or did without,” as Smith writes in his book, and he scarcely noticed the lack of modern conveniences.
As he grew up, Smith became more and more determined to do his part — and then some — to improve living conditions in the area. It wasn’t always easy; Smith faced challenges from the beginning.
At the age of 13, a serious infection almost cost him his left leg; it was only at his father’s pleading that doctors worked to save the leg, which had become “crooked and practically unusable” as a result of the bone disease osteomyelitis. To further complicate matters, Smith broke the leg while hobbling on crutches.
The injury required two years of recuperation, most of it spent in bed in a cast from his chest to his left foot. Smith’s naturally sunny outlook helped him weather that difficult time, and even permanent damage that left one leg several inches shorter than the other failed to dampen his enthusiasm for life.
The book continues into Smith’s boyhood in the Smithton community of Beaufort County. The author shares his experiences working with the National Youth Administration, training at a sawmill in Belhaven. The NYA later took Smith to Greenville, where, for the first time, he lived in a structure with electricity and a telephone.
Yet, he yearned to join the military. The country was embroiled in World War II, and Smith wanted to serve. He had learned to compensate for his lame leg to the point that few noticed his injury, but the doctor conducting his physical exam wasn’t fooled. Smith passed every test required to join the military — then the doctor got a good look at his leg and sent him home.
And then, life threw him another curve. Funding for NYA was cut and Smith was out of a job; there was little else to do but return to the rural life he had left behind, and he somewhat reluctantly returned to an area without such modern conveniences as electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing.
There were compensations, to be sure. After returning home, Smith met the girl of his dreams, married her and started a family.
“Fortunately, just before Cecil Jr. came along, electric power arrived in our community, thanks to the efforts of Bill Bulluck and the Woodstock Electric Membership Corporation,” Smith recalled in his book.
Smith went to work for Woodstock, which later led to an opportunity to train in the maintenance of a new telephone system. Tri-County Telephone Membership Corporation was constructing a network to serve rural residents of Beaufort, Hyde and Washington counties, and Smith accepted an offer that, he writes, would affect the next 40 years of his life.
Smith shares the many hurdles and hindrances the new venture had to overcome, including the devastation left behind by Hurricane Hazel in October 1954. Smith, Woodstock and Tri-County continued to weather various storms, and then a new opportunity presented itself.
On May 1, 1972, Smith reported to work as Tri-County’s new manager. The membership corporation grew and prospered with him at the helm.
Smith continued in that role for 20 years. During that time, Smith had his share of bad times — the death of his first wife, Opal — and good times — his second marriage, to Elva Bunch Silverthorne.
“By Finger and By God” covers it all. Work on Smith’s book began several years ago, according to his son, and was completed with the assistance of Bruce Washburn and Mary Talley, according to his son. The final galley proofs were read to Smith for his approval as he faced his final battle early last summer, and the book was published this month.
“By Finger and By God” is available at two locations in Belhaven — O’Neal’s Gift Shop and Wine &Words — as well as I Can’t Believe It’s a Book Store in Washington.
At the beginning
“We started with 197 customers. These were the co-op members who’d been able to actually afford the cost of installing one of our phones, which was only $25 when we began our telephone service. There were a lot of people that didn’t get telephones at first and it wasn’t because they didn’t want one. They could afford the $10 membership fee, but not that $25 charge to actually get a phone installed. That was a pretty tough hump to get over for some people who were making hardly any money. But they still wanted a phone.
“Of course, all of our initial customers were thrilled to have their phones! At first, a few people got nervous when their phones rang — thinking perhaps it meant bad news — but soon a lot of other people wanted a telephone. And soon I was becoming known as the telephone man to most all of our rural area. Now, they knew my first name and I had no problem with them calling me Cecil, but they began referring to me as ‘the telephone man.’”
— From Cecil Smith’s book, “By Finger and By God.”