Attorney Merck K. Smith wrote the following remembrance of his father, retired DeKalb State Court Judge Jack B. Smith, who died Nov. 24 at age 88. Merck Smith, who practices law and operates a media company he founded, said he was inspired to become a lawyer after watching his father as a DeKalb solicitor and judge.
Atlanta underwent many significant changes from the late 1950s through the millennium. Throughout these changes, never straying from the steady course that earned him the respect and admiration he carried throughout his career, was Judge Jack B. Smith of the State Court of DeKalb County.
Judge Smith, 88, a resident of Decatur, died in his sleep of natural causes on the morning of Nov. 24. With his passing, the legal community of Atlanta lost a great and well-respected comrade.
Smith was born on Oct. 23, 1924, and grew up in Atlanta at a time when the trolleys still ran and the roads to outlying towns were mostly unpaved. The Great Depression set in shortly after his fifth birthday, and he remembered growing up really knowing no different as to the hard times endured by all.
He grew up in Decatur, attending Oakhurst Elementary School, and he was quick to recount many happy memories about those days. One of his favorite stories was about hanging around the service station, hoping to secure ball bearings with which he could play marbles. His father, Dorsey Smith, was a traveling bulk paper salesman at the time, and on occasion he would get to travel with his father, Savannah being one of his favorite locations.
Smith attended Decatur High School, where he excelled scholastically and enjoyed playing sports. He was back-up quarterback to Frank Broyles, former legendary coach at Arkansas, and he was also the designated extra point kicker. He played guard on the basketball team, this being his strongest sport, and played outfield and occasionally pitched for the baseball team. He was also a member of the ROTC, which would later further shape his life.
After high school, Smith attended North Georgia College in anticipation of entering the service upon his 18th birthday. He entered the infantry but opted out when an opportunity arose to attend Officer Training School. Attending Georgia Tech during the day and working at a cotton mill at night, Smith waited for his opening at the Air Force Officer Training Academy. Upon completion, Smith was stationed in Kimbolton, England, and flew 33 missions as a navigator on a B-17.
Judge Smith recalled countless stories of his days in the service, from thinking to himself on his first mission how pretty the flak bombs looked—until the shrapnel started penetrating his plane, to his taking part in the infamous raid on Dresden, Germany. It is interesting to note that he flew a number of missions over Berlin at the time his future wife was still living there.
After the war, Smith returned to Decatur and attended Emory University, where he earned a degree in journalism. After a brief spell of work he decided that this was not the profession for him.
Still having tuition available under the G.I. Bill, Smith went to Emory law school and inquired about enrollment. He was asked if he had a four-year degree and was then told that he could start attending classes the next week or in several months. He replied that he would start the next week. This was a decision that turned out to benefit the legal community for years to come.
Smith started his practice of law with Ginsburg and Rose. During this period he met Ingeborg Blumenau on a blind date. She had moved to America from Berlin after the war. After dating and a brief engagement, the couple was married. Shortly after that, Smith took a job as an assistant solicitor in DeKalb County. He would later became solicitor.
One of the stories he would tell was about the call from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to Judge Oscar Mitchell and him regarding charges against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The story is that Dr. King had received a ticket for not having his driver’s license on him and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation while Jack Smith was out of town. Being an ordinance violation, the sentence had to be vacated to be re-sentenced to six months’ probation. In the interim the press began to pick up on the story, resulting in the call from Kennedy for reassurance that things were proceeding properly.
Smith continued as solicitor until 1968, when the governor appointed him to the newly created State Court of DeKalb County. Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s there was a gradual change in the method and manner in which the state court was run by then-Senior Judge Oscar Mitchell. In the mid-’80s Judge Mitchell was defeated by Judge Clarence F. Seeliger (who still presides in the DeKalb Superior Court), thereby elevating Smith to the position of senior judge. Smith remained on the state court bench until 1998, at which time he took senior judge status in DeKalb County. Judge Smith continued to preside over cases until his sight failed from monocular degeneration around 2007.
Throughout his years on the bench, Smith was one of the most popular judges around Atlanta. He was a very humble, just and knowledgeable judge. Attorneys always knew that they would be treated fairly and with respect.
Whenever his rulings were questioned, he would be quick to reply, “You are welcome to take it up on appeal, that is what the Court of Appeals is for.”
Many attorneys tried their first case in front of Judge Smith. He was always quick to lend guidance and compassion, mindful not to bend the law or show favoritism, but only to make sure that justice was served. When a new attorney would close his case without tendering his exhibits, Judge Smith was quick to reply “I am assuming you are closing your case subject to tendering your exhibits.”
The epitome of who Judge Smith was and how he conducted his life can be summed up with the answer once given to a question asked by his son. He was asked “Dad, what makes you such a popular and well-respected judge among everyone?”
His answer was simple yet revealing: “Son, I am no better or no worse than anyone that walks into my courtroom, from the attorneys to the jurors to the defendants. And I always treat them with the same respect.”
For anyone that knew or appeared in front of Judge Jack B. Smith, this statement says it all. He was a kind, compassionate and humble man who was also confident and steadfast in his rulings and had an exceptional understanding of the law.
Judge Jack Bryan Smith will be greatly missed by the Legal Community of Atlanta but always remembered for the way that he ran his courtroom with wisdom, dignity and honor.
Judge Smith is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ingeborg B. Smith; two sons, Bryan and Merck; and three grandchildren, Katherine, Austin and Rebecca.
In light of Judge Smith’s selflessness and great generosity throughout his life, it is requested that in lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Jack Bryan Smith Memorial Fund Account 2682407347 at any Wells Fargo branch.
Donations may also be mailed to the Jack Bryan Smith Memorial Fund, c/o Wells Fargo Bank N.A., 4099 Lavista Road, Tucker, GA 30084.
A memorial celebration in remembrance of Judge Smith’s life and accomplishments will be held 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Old Courthouse on the square in Decatur. A brief service will be held at 3 p.m.