By Barney Blakeney
Rarely do surprise birthday celebrations actually come as a surprise to the honoree. But John Henry Smalls Jr. had no clue that his family was having a celebration for him in the fellowship hall at Friendship AME Church in Mount Pleasant’s Old Village February 10.
“I didn’t have a clue,” Smalls said with a smile while shaking his head after being led from the church sanctuary into the adjoining fellowship hall. His three children John III, Carlton and Keymeil, had invited family members, former classmates and friends to attend the celebration held after church service. Smalls turned 80 February 11.
Smalls, a retired Charleston County School District educator who grew up in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant was one of 12 children born to John H. and Mary L. Smalls. Fighting back tears recalling his youth Smalls said, “We had nothing. But we never starved,” and his mother who didn’t have a high school education raised her children well. None ever was imprisoned, he said.
For Smalls, athletics was his ticket out of poverty. He attended Laing School. His classmates remembered Smalls as a good natured prankster, but he was more popular as a basketball player. Playing basketball for Laing eventually won him a scholarship at Kittrell Junior College in North Carolina. He later transferred to Claflin College in Orangeburg where he earned a degree in Physical and Health Education. He’s taught at Porcher and McClellanville elementary schools and Lincoln High School. He has regularly served as a substitute teacher around Charleston County and after 41 years in education, still subs at Charleston Progressive Academy in Charleston.
Hard working and multifaceted, Smalls for more than three decades wrote the weekly column “Across The Cooper With John Smalls” for The Charleston Chronicle and has worked at local Walmart stores nearly two decades. He often can be heard singing in the aisles as he stocks shelves. Among the gifts he received was a guitar. “I knew it!” he exclaimed unwrapping the package, as his wife Eartha Lee added, “Now he’s got something to pick on.”
Amid the well wishes and fond memories, perhaps the most touching moment came when Smalls’ 10-year-old granddaughter, Simone, ran to him for a hug proclaiming, “I like my daddy because he reminds me of my granddaddy! My granddaddy’s cool.”