Dr. Al Smith and the Pursuit of Happiness

By: Don McNay
By: Don McNay

"I believe the key to happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to." -Elvis Presley The King had it right. If you can do the three things he outlined, you have won the lottery of life.

"I believe the key to happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to."

 

-Elvis Presley 

 

The King had it right.  If you can do the three things he outlined, you have won the lottery of life.

 

It is ironic that Presley was unable to practice what he preached.

 

Elvis died at age 43. At the end of his life, he didn't have a partner in love, didn't have a lot to do, and didn't have much to look forward to.  He turned to binge eating and huge numbers  of pills to make it through the day. 

 

Like a lot of people, Elvis died while he was still breathing. 

 

That is not the case with Dr. Al Smith.  At age 84, he is as active and energetic as he ever was.  He has a long and loving relationship with his wife, Martha Helen, and he is constantly working and doing things to make a difference in society.

 

All of Al's achievements play into his new title, Dr. Al Smith.  On May 8, Al received an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky.

 

He is best known as the 33-year host of Comment on Kentucky, which runs on Kentucky Educational Television.  But his greatest skill is making things happen, one person at a time. 

 

Countless people have told me their personal stories about something Al did to make a difference in their lives or careers.  Al doesn't discriminate in whom he touches.  I've had multi-millionaires, manual laborers and a ton of journalists all tell me their stories about how Al touched their lives.   

 

The irony of Al Smith becoming Dr. Smith is that Al never made it to his undergraduate college graduation ceremony.

 

Although I was an avid fan of Comment on Kentucky from its beginning, the first time I ever saw Al in person was in 1983, when I was a Board Member for Kentucky's chapter of the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Organization and Al was the featured speaker for the 2-day convention.

 

Al stood in front of a hundred of the state's brightest 16-year olds and told them how he had received a scholarship to Vanderbilt University and flunked out of school because of his addiction to alcohol.

 

Al bottomed out as a reporter in Russellville, Kentucky.  He stumbled into an AA meeting, turned his life around, and has done the kinds of things, like serving as head of the Appalachian Regional Commission under President Carter, that lead a major university to award an honorary doctorate to you.

 

I didn't actually meet Al the day he spoke to the high school students.  We met a year later when I was a community columnist for the Lexington Herald Leader and had written an off- the- wall column about how my greatest ambition was to be on Comment on Kentucky.

 

Al immediately put me on the program.    Because of a huge snowfall and some of the "real journalists" not being able to make it, I had a significant part in the show and Al said that he would bring me back again.

 

It took 20 years, but he did.  Many, many times.

 

Another thing happened that night.  I had left Vanderbilt two years earlier, one course and a thesis short of finishing my master's degree.  Since my structured settlement career was starting to take off and my focus had gone from politics to the financial world, I had decided to forget about the master's.

 

At dinner that night, Al got all over me about not finishing the degree.  The next day I told Mike Behler, my college roommate, what Al had said.  Mike had a similar reaction.  I realized they were right.

 

It took a year of weekly driving from Lexington to Nashville, and a couple more years to finish the master's thesis, but my Vanderbilt diploma now hangs proudly on my wall -- inspired by a Vandy student who never got one.

 

I would have liked to have met Elvis.  I think his comments about happiness were profound.   

 

Then I think about my relationship with Dr. Al Smith. 

 

I was lucky to see Dr. Smith "walk the walk" in the pursuit of happiness.  And I was even luckier that he showed me how it is done.

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