ANDERSON — As he walked through the hallways to his office at Anderson Preparatory Academy’s high school, Ca single passing student stopped and saluted Chaplain Obadiah Smith Jr.
It’s a sign of respect to which the lieutenant colonel has become accustomed after two decades in the Air Force Reserves. But in his most recent career move, the salutes are coming from cadets not old enough to join any of the official military branches.
“In my military career, I engaged the hearts of airmen, and now I’m encouraging the hearts of students,” he said.
Born 59 years ago in Cincinnati to Obadiah Smith Sr. and his wife, Marie, the oldest of their three children lost his father at 12 years of age. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his mother and stepfather, Nathaniel Ruffin, an Air Force security officer, to George Air Force Base in Victorvillle, California.
“I kind of call myself a California boy,” he said.
As a child, Smith was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout until the move to Victorville, where there was no troop. Still, he said, he’s always tried to live by their principles.
“I was thrust into leadership at an early age,” he said.
As a student at Victorville Valley Senior High School, Smith became an athlete, participating in football, wrestling and track.
“I was the second-fastest in the school,” he said.
With a minister for a stepfather, Smith was 17 when he said he was called to the ministry.
“I became what we call a ‘PK,’ a preacher’s kid,” he said. “The church also thrust me into a lot of leadership positions.”
As a teenager, Smith said his mission was to volunteer at a convalescent home where he helped feed a man with multiple sclerosis a couple of times a week.
“I take literally ‘Did you feed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was naked?’” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Azusa Pacific University, Smith went to work for three years as a correctional officer. During that time, he decided to continue his education and started working toward his Masters of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary.
For a while, he also worked as an outreach social worker at a hospitality center for the homeless in Pasadena, and later as a project coordinator for World Vision, where he eventually served as special assistant to the president of the organization’s Institute of Global Engagement.
At age 38, Ruffin asked whether Smith ever had considered military chaplaincy, which led him to enter the Air Force Reserves as a chaplain.
“I had accomplished almost everything I wanted in my civilian life,” he said.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Smith was called to active duty for about five years to help families of soldiers as they were being deployed through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program at Grissom Air Force Base. His duties included educational events to ensure the readiness of reservists, their families and their employers for the challenges of deployment and separation.
Shortly before retiring from the Air Force Reserves, Smith started volunteering at APA, where he also spent time as a substitute teacher for a year before becoming the senior aerospace science instructor and the senior officer for the charter school’s JROTC program.
Smith also serves as a minister at the Sherman Street Church of God, where he has been executive pastor, minister of outreach and chair of the Pastoral Search Committee. In addition, he is never done with learning, hoping to earn his doctorate in May from the Anderson University School of Theology.
'SERVICE BEFORE SELF'
Awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash by former governor and now Vice President Mike Pence after serving three term on the Indiana Veterans Commission, Smith also was named 2010 Outstanding Chaplain of the Year for the nation by the Air Force Reserve Command. He also was named the 2008 Distinguished Servant Leader for outstanding professional achievement and as an exemplary role model from AU’s Falls School of Business.
“It really comes from the Air Force motto, ‘Service before self,’” he said. “I’m a firm believer others will see you and elevate you in your own due time.”
Smith admits though it’s a quasi-military environment, working with APA’s cadets has been a culture shock.
“It is a big transition," he said. "You have to transition into understanding the culture now. You have to be more lenient and understanding as you try to develop citizens of character dedicated to serving their nation and community.”
Smith isn’t sure what the future holds, but he said he’s always ready for his next calling.
“There’s a future out there, and now I need to find it,” he said.
However, one thing is for certain, Smith said: Though his service has taken him throughout the United States and as far away as Brazil, Romania and Sri Lanka, his home base will remain in Indiana.
“Indiana is home. I ain’t going nowhere,” he said.
APA Cadet Alexa Carson, 17, commander of the school’s color guard, said Smith is special because he goes far beyond the call of duty.
“He is one of the best commanders that we have had at this school. He is a great fit for us,” the junior said. “Being under his leadership, I am getting a lot more potential than I thought I would. He has done that by giving me an opportunity to show what I can do.”
Technical Sgt., Kyle Tidwell describes Smith as honest, trustworthy and caring.
“He wants to hear the truth. He tells you the truth,” she said. “You can ask him or tell him anything, whether it’s personal, job-related or military-related. He wants what’s good for his subordinates. He cares for the students’ well-being education-wise, morale-wise. He’s good for the program.”
Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 640-4883.