People close to Bettye Durham Smith say she probably touched just about every life in Sanford in one way or another during three terms as mayor and decades in civic service.
Smith, who served as Sanford's first female mayor from 1985 to 1997, died Sunday after a long illness. She was 80.
"Bettye knew so many people here and had so many friends. Her friends could fill a stadium," said her husband, Dr. Robert Smith, a longtime Sanford physician. "A day hardly ever goes by when someone doesn't say they knew Bettye, and tells a story of how they went to her with some problem and she took care of it."
As mayor, Smith pushed through the development of the Seminole Towne Center mall; the creation of the city's downtown and residential historic districts; planning for the city's Riverwalk; and preservation of landmarks such as the original Sanford library, a 1920s structure now known as the Bettye D. Smith Cultural Arts Center. She was first elected as a Democrat and re-elected twice as a Republican.
Smith also built bridges between Sanford's white and black communities. As mayor, she declared Martin Luther King Jr. Day a city holiday. She established Sanford's Human Relations Board, which became the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Steering Committee, now in its 26th year. She also organized numerous joint services and celebrations between black and white churches.
Smith was heartbroken in the past year when new racial rifts emerged in Sanford because of the Trayvon Martin case, said friend Richard Wagoner, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Sanford.
"When the strife came to Sanford, she grieved," he said. "She hurt for her city."
Her reach to the people of Sanford did not just come from the mayor's office. In the 1970s, she founded Seminole County Victim Services and helped create the Seminole Sheriff's Office Rape Crisis/Child Abuse Hotline. She then joined the sheriff's office as a victim-assistance officer, working with rape and abuse victims.
"Victim services remained a passion of hers for her entire life," said Seminole County Undersheriff Steve Harriett, who was Sanford police chief under Smith. "She was all about serving others."
Her job as a victim's advocate prompted her to try her hand at politics. After losing a race for state representative, she was elected mayor of Sanford in 1984.
After leaving the mayor's office, she taught history at Seminole College, played piano and organ music and sang in a variety of settings, including several Sanford area churches and the city's Christmas-tree lightings. She also was active with the Sanford Woman's Club, Sanford Lions Club, the Salvation Army and other organizations.
Born Bettye Durham in Margerum, Ala., in 1932, she was attending nursing school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis when she met Smith, a medical student there. They were married in Memphis in 1954. After he served in the Navy, they settled in Sanford in 1958. She completed a bachelor's degree at UCF and a master's degree at the University of Florida.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by three sons: John of Jupiter; Robert of Washington, D.C.; and Cary of Lake Mary. Funeral services are being arranged by the Gramkow Funeral Home in Sanford.
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