Wallis Craig Smith was a popular leader right from the start. Born in 1875, he was the son of Jay Smith, a pioneer druggist whose pharmacy was located at 417 Court Street.
Young Wallis was elected president of his high school class for three years. After graduating from the high school that would later be named Arthur Hill, he worked in the family drugstore and then became a bookkeeper at the Oakland Vinegar and Pickle Company in Highland Station, Michigan. In 1895, he returned to Saginaw as advertising manager of the daily newspaper, Evening Journal.
In the fall of 1896, he began studying for a law degree at the University of Michigan where he was a member of the law fraternity Phi Delta Phi and sang in the University Glee Club.
He came back to Saginaw to practice law, first with partner James Davitt, and then in the firm of Eaton, Holland and Smith.
After pursuing business interests in Duluth, Minnesota, he again returned to Saginaw, this time to head up the Saginaw Development Company, which was exploring for oil and gas. The company created something of a sensation in September of 1912 when 100 quarts of nitroglycerin were lowered into a well on the west bank of the Saginaw River, just north of the Bristol Street Bridge. Spectators had gathered for something spectacular but there was only a dull thud and a cloud of gas. An hour later, almost everyone had gone home when oil suddenly erupted 40 feet in the air for five minutes. It was Saginaw’s first gusher but not much came of it.
Three years later, Smith created a genuine sensation when he played the lead in the Academy of Music’s musical comedy called “Campus Mouser.” The local newspaper reported, “The first night was a sell out, the second packed to the rafters.” Either Wallis Smith was a major talent or he had a lot of friends.
He was one of the earliest members of Pit and Balcony and appeared as the Captain in its second season’s production of “Bound East for Cardiff.” He had major roles in six more Pit and Balcony plays, including “Julius Caesar” and “Merry Wives of Windsor” in which he starred as Falstaff. Evidently his talent was very real. Years later, Buzz Morley wrote, “Will any of us ever forget Wallis Craig Smith making an exit after his big scene in “Anna Christie,” his beer bucket under his arm and real tears streaming down his face?” Smith served three terms as president of Pit and Balcony and when the old barn theater burned in 1943, he furnished a temporary home for the company at 413 Court.
Smith was a great believer in universal military service and when the First World War loomed on the horizon, he went off to the Plattsburg Military Training Camp in 1916 to study training methods. He was 41, past the age for active service, but he became a captain in the Saginaw Guards and his leadership as a civilian recruiter brought him a commendation. He was also a director of the Saginaw Band and Orchestra which had been organized to provide a military band for Saginaw as well as to promote interest in music.
When the war ended in 1918, Smith faced an even greater challenge. He was president of Saginaw’s Red Cross when a virulent flu epidemic broke out. There were 4500 cases of the flu reported in Saginaw with 170 deaths.
From 1919 to 1926, he served as president of the west side board of education. He worked hard for the construction of North and South Intermediate Schools and was a leader in the drive to consolidate the east and west side Saginaw schools.
He was a member of the Saginaw Board of Trade, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, the West Side Businessmen’s Association, and was active in the Welfare League. He was president of the Saginaw Rotary Club, the University of Michigan Alumni Club and Associated Charities.
Smith was a member of the Saginaw Club, the Saginaw Country Club, the Saginaw Canoe Club, the Bay City Country and Boat Clubs and First Congregational Church. While serving on the Saginaw Planning Commission from 1929 to 1935, he pushed for riverfront development and a civic center. He was way ahead of his time.
He and Jean Wadham Wells were married in 1901 and embarked on a year-long wedding trip to Europe and Egypt. She was the daughter of prominent businessman, Charles Wells. They had two daughters, Jean and Martha, and lived in the Wells homestead at 525 N. Michigan. They celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary before he died in 1946.
The Saginaw News commented, “Wallis Craig Smith was one of the most prominent men in Saginaw’s history.”
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