Skip to main content

Family patriarch Eddie Smith Sr. grew up in what is now the American Children’s Home orphanage in Lexington, NC. His daughter-in-law Jo Allison Smith grew up on the grounds of The Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, NC where her father was a football coach and later, assistant superintendent. An orphanage is a community as a family. It’s a big bear hug of, “We’re all in this together, and we’ll get through it because we’ll help each other.” By experience or affiliation, nature or nurture, the Smith family lives boldly and resolutely within this exceptional generosity of spirit. Generations of patients at UNC Hospitals will benefit.

“We wanted to take a hard look at some of the areas we felt strongly about, allocate an amount of money we felt we could give and find the very best and most productive ways to put that money to work in our areas of special interest,” said Eddie Smith, Jr., CEO of Grady-White Boats in Greenville, NC, and president and CEO of the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation. Working in partnership with doctors at UNC Hospitals and Medical Foundation leadership, they aligned their gifts with the University’s strategic plan and the family foundation’s guidelines. Smith’s son, Chris, a family foundation and Medical Foundation board member, describes his family’s philanthropy using entrepreneurial terms. “We are very passionate about looking at each area (in which we invest): do we believe in the leadership? Is the leadership creating a sustainable model? How much impact are we creating and are we able to leverage that gift to help them grow? We try to create partnerships with people and science so we can make sure we all have a plan to succeed moving forward.”

Analysis, planning, and due diligence aside, the genesis of each of these gifts springs from something far more personal and precious: a family’s health, healing, and wellbeing and their relationship with UNC Hospitals. “We are grateful, and we want people to know that a high level of care is available right here in North Carolina,” Chris said.

A Ferrari and The Edward C. Smith, Sr. – Jan Busby-Whitehead, MD Fellowship Fund in Geriatric Medicine

Eddie Smith, Sr. was nine years old with a younger sister and two younger brothers when his father died. A few months later, his mother died of tuberculosis. At the height of the Depression and with no financial support from their extended family, the four children were packed off to Lexington and what was then the Junior Order Home. At age 18 with $10 from the orphanage, a ride to Lexington’s town square and a work ethic born of hard times, the elder Smith began a series of jobs that would eventually make him the founder of catalog and online retailer National Wholesale Company, Inc. and a member of the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. After retirement, Smith enjoyed traveling the world and driving his limited edition Ferrari around racetracks in Sebring, Palm Beach and Savannah. At age 80, a series of TIA’s (transient ischemic attacks) brought him to UNC Hospitals and the care of internist Jan Busby-Whitehead, professor and chief in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and director of the Center for Aging and Health. Busby-Whitehead and neurologist Heidi Roth cared for Smith through a series of minor strokes and a more serious one suffered when he was 85. Thanks to his care, Eddie Smith, Sr. could still drive his Ferrari well into his 80’s, and as Chris Smith said, “… continue to enjoy life as he was prone to do.” In 2007, UNC oncologist Thomas Shea partnered with Jan Busby-Whitehead to treat Smith’s final bout with cancer. The exceptional level of respect and trust that defined their doctor-patient relationship is honored and memorialized in the fund sharing their names and will encourage the next generation of fellows in geriatric medicine.

Love, devotion, and The Jo Allison and Edward C. Smith, Jr. Innovation Endowed Fund in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology

They’ve been married nearly 55 years, and though Eddie Smith, Jr. isn’t sure his sweetheart can hear or understand what he’s saying, he sits by her bedside and talks to her every day. Jo Allison Smith suffers from two serious brain diseases: Parkinson’s and a rare form of dementia. The Parkinson’s tremor began in her right hand, and UNC neurologist Dan Kaufer diagnosed the disease while it was in its earliest stages. “One of the keys—and a great benefit for us—was having that diagnosis from Dan very early. We were able to have lots of family discussions about what my mother would want as this disease progressed… Early on, she was able to participate in them. “

As the family dealt with the Parkinson’s diagnosis, other symptoms began to manifest: Jo’s memory started to fail. Trusted neurologist Heidi Roth and internist and geriatric specialist Jan Busby-Whitehead joined Dan Kaufer on Jo’s medical team. Today, Jo receives full-time care. Though her memory and body failed her, her family’s memories of a fiercely loving, vibrant, talented woman are as vivid as ever. Described by Eddie as “… the biggest female basketball and football fan the University ever had,” Jo won a fan experience auctioned off by UNC basketball Coach Roy Williams to raise money for the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I suspect she’s still the only female who’s been in the locker room with the basketball team before they came out for the game, sat on the bench with the team, gone into the huddle with the team during the time out and joined Roy during the post-game press conference,” Eddie said. Endowed with a beautiful voice, Jo auditioned for—and won—a full scholarship to Greensboro College by singing an aria from Madame Butterfly. “She was a very organized, strong woman of great faith and when I look back now—I tell her this all the time—I couldn’t have done any of what I did without her incredible support.” The Jo Allison and Edward C. Smith, Jr. Innovation Endowed Fund in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology will advance clinical care for those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Jo’s, support research and encourage the next generation of physicians. It will also seed a new Center for Memory and Brain Health at UNC Hospitals.

Well-being and The Jo Allison and Edward C. Smith, Jr. Innovation Endowed Fund in Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science; The Jo Allison and Edward C. Smith, Jr. Master’s Program Development Fund in Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science; and The Jo Allison and Edward C. Smith, Jr. Scholarship Fund in Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science

It’s not just snoring. For three generations of the Smith family, sleep apnea degraded the energy and vitality necessary to their quality of life. “My grandfather was diagnosed later in life, and at that particular time, there wasn’t a lot of science, not a lot of technology around testing for the problems, and there were no easily accessible solutions,” said Chris. The elder Smith tried surgery at another facility; it was unsuccessful. He was referred to UNC Hospitals and Brad Vaughn, neurologist and medical director of UNC Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science and program director Mary Ellen Wells diagnosed his sleep apnea as critical. He was immediately placed on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. With Eddie Sr.’s improved health and the idea that sleep apnea had a genetic component, Eddie Jr. and Chris decided to be tested. They first chose a non-accredited sleep lab and were diagnosed with minor sleep apnea. “When we came to Carolina, the equipment was more sensitive and the people who were reading the report, more educated. We were both placed on CPAP machines,” Chris said.

These diagnostic experiences led Jo and Eddie to seed the country’s first undergraduate degree in sleep technology. Based at UNC-Charlotte, it is directed by Brad Vaughan and Mary Ellen Wells in Chapel Hill and has been extremely successful and well-received. New gifts from The Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation will help position the UNC Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science Program as a leader in sleep innovation and research, support scholarships for students, and jumpstart a master’s program. “The field is exploding and the master’s program is just the logical next step,” Eddie said.

“We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected.” Eddie Smith, Chris Smith

The Smith family’s $4 million in support of brain, geriatric and sleep health is one of many gifts they’ve made to UNC-Chapel Hill. They remain humble about their ability to be so generous and return a portion of their wealth to the community that has given so much to them. “When you see something come to fruition and make a difference, you can’t put it into words,” Eddie said. “We’re just blessed to do it.”