Chris Smith enjoyed his position as a paraprofessional at Morris Innovative High School so much he was typically the first employee in the parking lot each morning, because he couldn't wait to get to work.
Smith died at age 77 from COVID-19 complications on Jan. 26.
"He'd be waiting for the custodians at 6 a.m.," said Pam Massingale, assistant principal at Morris. "He was always working."
Even when he had a doctor's appointment, he'd work until he had to leave, then come back to school after the appointment, said Pat Hunt, principal of Morris. "He loved working here, and he loved the kids."
"We're going to miss him," and the school made counselors available to help students and staff grieve following his passing, Massingale said. "It's very sad."
Smith, who moved to Dalton in 1971 with his wife Mary, was "a great storyteller," so Hunt was touched when she heard several students remembering him by telling stories about him in a classroom last week, she said. "I thought that was pretty awesome."
Smith, who also worked in the carpet industry between stints in Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools, started as a substitute teacher at Morris in 2013 before transitioning to a role as a paraprofessional in the In-School Suspension (ISS) program the following year.
Perhaps in part because of his military background — Smith served two tours in Vietnam as a member of the United States Navy — he was a disciplined individual, and he instilled that drive within his charges in the ISS program, Hunt said. "He was so great, because he made sure they got their work done,"
"He had a lot of success with kids, getting them on track to graduate," Hunt said. "We'd always talk about 'getting them over the finish line.'"
Smith, a University of Georgia alumnus, "really took on that mission of getting them caught up" academically, Massingale said. After working with Smith, "kids who felt they were too far behind" began to see the mountain in front of them as scalable, instead of insurmountable.
Evelyn Zuniga, a member of the 2020 graduating class at Morris, said Smith's death "breaks my heart."
"He was always amazing to me, and when I graduated, he told me to (come) back and visit him," she said. "I had a great connection with him, and I will miss him dearly."
Morris alumnus Wilmer Martinez Arana will also miss Smith, calling him "a role model."
"We had great conversations, and many times he talked to me about my state of mind," he said. "At the time, I had a problem with keeping my emotions hidden from the outside world, but (Smith) showed me that I shouldn’t, and to express it, and to be strong."
Current Morris student Nicole Rocio said she "cannot believe" Smith is gone.
"He would always greet me with a 'Good morning' and gave me a look of 'You got this,'" Rocio said. "He was always generous and kind to me."
Smith "was well-loved by the students that he worked with at Morris, always pushing them to do their best and believe in themselves because he believed in them," Pat Holloway, chief of staff for Dalton Public Schools, said in a statement from the school system. "He loved to smile and tell stories, and he was generous in his support of the students and staff at Morris," so he "leaves a huge vacancy at the school that no one will be able to fill."
Hunt was "really surprised" Smith contracted COVID-19, because "he was very diligent about wearing his mask, as we all are here," she said. "We follow all the protocols here, wear masks, and check temperatures every day."
If students don't wear masks properly, Hunt sends them home, but that's only happened once all year, she said. "Our students have been really good, and you don't see our staff — including (Smith) — without a mask."
Smith had not been listed as a close contact by anyone at the school who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 during contact tracing, and "there’s no way to know where he was exposed to COVID-19," Holloway said. The school has consistently enforced the wearing of face coverings by staff and students, "and we continue to take temperatures each morning of all staff and students who enter the building."
The system has provided personal protective equipment for students and staff in all of Dalton Public Schools, including Morris, she added. "We also continue deep cleaning at all of our schools, including Morris, and treating schools every 90 days with Prevent X from Ecovasive," a surface protectant.
Smith, who had two children, Christopher Blake Smith (deceased) and Holly Smith Lovelace, previously taught at North Whitfield High School and Northwest Whitfield High School, and he coached basketball, football and track and field, Massingale said. That interest in sports and youth carried over to Morris, as he often assisted with the school's athletic events.
"He volunteered at ballgames doing anything he could," Hunt said. "Whatever he saw he could do to help, he was going to help."
"Just about every year here, he pretty much paid for our junior-and-senior prom with his donations so they could have that special night," Hunt added. "He had a heart of gold, a very tender-hearted man."
"Our hearts go out to all of Smith’s family and friends as we all grieve the loss of an extraordinary individual," Holloway said. "He was a kind, generous and passionate educator who loved the Morris students and staff."
His coworkers learned of his COVID-19 diagnosis over holiday break.
"He went to the hospital multiple times, and then he was admitted," Hunt said. "He tried to fight it off, and I think he thought he had turned the corner, (but) a couple of days later, it was a different story."
Smith "wanted to work all the time," she added. "Right up until the end, he was telling (Massingale) he was coming back to work."