Hulett Carlson Smith (October 21, 1918-January 15, 2012) was West Virginia’s 27th governor. Born in Beckley, Smith grew up in the world of business and politics. His father, Joe L. Smith, a newspaper publisher and bank president, was mayor of Beckley, a state senator, U.S. congressman, and chairman of the state Democratic Party. Hulett graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1934. In 1938, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Smith married Mary Alice Tieche in 1942. He served in the navy in World War II, in Washington, Rhode Island, and San Francisco, where he was a logistics expert for Lt. Clark Clifford, later U.S. secretary of defense. After the war Smith returned to Beckley and the management of family businesses. He also served on the boards of Beckley and Oak Hill hospitals, as a director of the Bank of Raleigh, and vice president of Beckley College (now Mountain State University). A licensed pilot since 1940, he served on the state Aeronautics Commission from 1947 to 1959.
In 1951, Smith became chairman of Beckley’s Democratic executive committee. Five years later he was named manager of Congressman Robert H. Mollohan’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against Republican Cecil Underwood, then became chairman of the state Democratic Party. In 1959, Smith announced his candidacy for governor, his first bid for elected office. He lost to Attorney General William Wallace Barron in the Democratic primary.
In 1961, Governor Barron appointed Smith head of the new Department of Commerce. His responsibilities included economic development and promotion of tourism. He took a broad approach and was particularly proud of the department’s efforts to promote traditional arts and crafts, beginning with the creation of the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair at Ripley. Smith’s department was also responsible for coordinating many of the activities surrounding West Virginia’s yearlong Centennial celebration in 1963.
In November 1963, he resigned to devote his energies to his second gubernatorial campaign. In the 1964 primary Smith carried 53 of the state’s 55 counties, receiving more votes than his three opponents combined. In the general election he defeated former Governor Underwood.
Smith’s inauguration, on a frigid January 18, 1965, was attended by 5,000 people. In his inaugural address the new governor expanded on the theme of his campaign, promising that education would be his primary goal and pledging to give the state an administration with ‘‘the highest standards of ethics, integrity, and honesty . . . [and to] never tolerate incompetence or mediocrity.’’
During Smith’s years as governor, the death penalty was abolished, new human rights legislation was passed, teachers’ pay was increased, the Educational Broadcasting Authority was put on a solid footing, and the Antiquities Commission was created. One of the greatest accomplishments of Smith’s administration was realized during his first year in office when the initial phase of his $32.5 million, three-year school improvement program was passed by the legislature. It included Project Head Start for preschoolers, a program actively supported by the first lady. Mrs. Smith was also the driving force behind a major restoration of the governor’s mansion.
In 1966, the governor signed several important pieces of legislation into law, including a new minimum wage and hour act, but the legislature voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the governor to succeed himself. That same year Smith also launched one of the most important and controversial undertakings of his administration, the creation of new strip mine regulations. He regarded conservation and recreation as cornerstones of the state’s economic future, and was highly critical of strip mining’s devastation of West Virginia’s natural beauty. He called for rigorous controls on what he referred to as ‘‘the rape of West Virginia.’’ The governor lobbied hard, and the 1967 legislature passed what was considered the toughest strip mine legislation in the country. During the same session the legislature also passed air and stream pollution control laws, raised taxes, and expanded unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits.
Smith was disappointed when legal challenges to the new environmental regulations revealed weaknesses in the stream pollution control law, although the state Supreme Court upheld the strip mine law. Then in 1968 his proposed $150 million bond issue for school construction and state facilities improvements stalled in legislative committee, and the senate refused to confirm Smith’s appointee for director of the Human Rights Commission.
Despite these setbacks, the governor enjoyed several significant victories in 1968. Ground was broken for two new state office buildings. The legislature voted to place the administration’s proposed $350 million road bond and modern budget amendments on the ballot. Both were approved by the voters, and the budget amendment greatly increased the power of future governors.
But 1968 was also the year when former Governor Barron, three top state officials, and two others were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery conspiracy involving state contracts. Smith immediately suspended the three officials, all holdovers from the Barron administration.
In addition to the revelations concerning Barron and his associates, several other scandals involving top officials surfaced during Smith’s administration. Not long after the governor took office, his Motor Vehicles commissioner, Jack Nuckols, was indicted on fraud and related charges, and later convicted. The following year allegations of improper use of influence in the awarding of state park concessions contracts led to the resignations of two top officials from the Department of Natural Resources. Another controversy in 1966 involved State Road Commission purchasing practices.
In 1967, the governor’s Alcoholic Beverage Control commissioner, Clarence C. Elmore, was indicted on charges of income tax evasion. The following year brought the Barron indictments and the indictment of a former state road equipment supervisor, Woodrow Yokum, on charges of unlawful transportation and sale of stolen government property. Elmore, Yokum, and four of those indicted with Barron were convicted. Barron was acquitted, only to later plead guilty to charges of bribing a juror.
While the U.S. Justice Department cleared Governor Smith of any involvement with the Barron case, the issue would cloud the remainder of his term and help propel Republican Arch A. Moore into the governor’s office in the election later in 1968. After leaving office, Smith returned to Beckley. He resumed his activities in private business and continued his involvement with civic and philanthropic activities and in Democratic Party politics. In 1987, Smith’s wife, Mary Alice, died. On July 14, 1990, he married the former Nancy Pat Hamilton Lewis.
In an interview with Charleston Gazette reporter John Morgan at the end of his term as governor, Hulett Smith said, ‘‘I like politics. It’s a part of life. People who don’t get involved are missing something.’’
Hulett Smith died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 93.
Read Gov. Smith’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Margo Stafford
Last Revised on October 29, 2010
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Wood, Jim. Raleigh County. Beckley: J. Wood, 1994.