Dr. Jerry Smith has had a lot of titles in his nine decades: husband, father, Navy sailor, dentist, doctor, missionary, medical director, Christ-follower. 

“You just run out of years is the only trouble,” Smith said.

But in all his years, Smith has never seen anything like his 90th birthday party May 20.

Friends from the Journey weekend group at Southeast Christian Church formed a caravan of about 20 cars and held a surprise drive-by birthday parade outside Smith’s home.

“Yea, I was really surprised,” Smith said. “A lot of cars came by. They did one of those caravan things and that went on for quite a while.”

Marietta, Smith’s wife, worked as a double-agent to keep the party a secret.

“The whole neighborhood started coming out wanting to know what all the noise was, so we almost had a block party,” said Joe Keating, a longtime friend. “We had a number of neighbors come up to us and express it was so nice of us to acknowledge Jerry. It was kind of funny, I asked Marietta, ‘Did you have to tell him to keep his clothes on and not to take a nap?’ because she knew what was going on. He was completely surprised and came out in his sweats. It made his day.”

A life well lived

Jerry and Marietta grew up in Louisville, started dating in high school and married Sept. 11, 1951.

“We were up in Canada on vacation celebrating our 50th anniversary, and that’s when 9/11 hit,” Smith said.

Smith served in the Navy from 1951-54 during the Korean War.

When he came back, he enrolled in dental school at the University of Louisville and graduated in four years.

Smith had his own dental practice in Bardstown, Kentucky, for four years, and he was a deacon at South Louisville Christian Church prior to Southeast being planted.

Then, God got ahold of him and his medical passion.

“I didn’t like dentistry that much anyway, and I couldn’t get that worked up over whether somebody flossed or not,” Smith added.

While visiting the church his brother-in-law pastored, Smith answered the call to an African country in “the middle of nowhere.”

“I didn’t even know where Rhodesia was, but he read a letter asking for medical help, and I felt like that was something I would really like to do,” Smith added. “After the sermon, my wife was thinking the same thing I was. So, we both went back and got the letter. It turns out we knew a couple of people who worked out there.”

In September 1963, the Smiths and their three kids—who were 3, 7 and 9 at the time—drove to New York, got on a freighter for three weeks to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, and then drove 1,500 miles north to Rhodesia.

“The first day we were out on the road, I saw this African standing there holding a 6-foot snake,” he said. “It was already dead, but I thought, ‘Oh boy, what are we getting into here?’ Welcome aboard.”

Smith’s monthly paycheck was $600, and they lived 100 miles from the nearest grocery store.

“They sent a truck in once a week to the mission station where we worked so you could get groceries,” Smith said. “We had kerosene refrigerators. We didn’t have electricity. We had a generator.”

Smith saw patients while studying medicine at an extension school of the University of Birmingham in England. He eventually became a medical doctor.

Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) was just north of South Africa. With a population of 7 million, it had only one neurosurgeon.

“The patients really needed help and they were grateful for the help,” Smith said. “We have so much over here. People there would wait four to five hours to be seen and would still be glad we treated them.”

On Sundays, Smith would deliver “sermonettes” in the village’s schools to students and their families would join sometimes.

However, Smith let his medical care do most of the talking.

“What you do tells more than what you say,” he said.

The Smiths planned to stay four years in Rhodesia, but ending up staying 11.

“We liked the work and felt like that’s what the Lord wanted us to do,” Smith said.

Political tension in Rhodesia increased over the years, resulting in a civil war. Fearing their sons would be drafted into the army, the Smiths returned to Kentucky in December 1974.

Right before the Smiths moved overseas, Bob Russell had become minister at Southeast. They returned to a church that had “grown rapidly” from a few hundred to a few thousand in that decade.

Smith worked in the medical field until he retired at 83.