There are people who influence our lives in such a way that we would never be what we are now without them.
For me, one of those is Jonathan Kennon Thompson Smith, who passed away November 14 at the age of 75. He was an author, historian, researcher, and genealogist with an inquisitive mind and boundless energy for his many research and writing projects.
I first met Jonathan when I worked at Kinko’s Copies in Jackson, Tennessee in the early 1990s while attending college at Union University. He would come into the store to have copies made of his manuscripts and I was often the one who would copy them. The pages would be typed on a typewriter and Polaroid photographs and clippings pasted onto them. Normally this was a hassle for the person working the copy machine because these pages would often jam in the document feeder and had to be hand-placed on the glass. Because Jonathan was always kind to me, smiling and polite, I went to the extra trouble of sorting through those troublesome pages. His books were standard paper size–8.5 x 11–and often stapled together as a booklet. Being a History major, I couldn’t help but print an extra copy for myself to read later.
Jonathan was a self-publisher before the term was in vogue. He created and designed his own books, copied them at Kinko’s, and donated them to the Tennessee Room at the Jackson-Madison County Library, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and anywhere else his works may be useful to researchers. There are over 100 in the Tennessee Room alone. He never sold his books–they were researched and written for the sheer love of his craft and sharing his discoveries with others rather than for monetary profit. He showed me that local and regional history and genealogy didn’t need to be produced by a big-time book publisher. Oftentimes, these firms would never touch them anyway.
I took Jonathan’s practices and began publishing my own manuscripts in the same manner, though I explored my creativity by designing front and back covers and binding them using spiral combs or plastic strips. In this manner, I published my first books–Hurst’s Wurst, Adam Huntsman, The Correspondence and Speeches of Adam Huntsman, and The McCanns of McNairy County, Tennessee.
After I married and moved to Middle Tennessee in 1993, Jonathan and I corresponded about our research projects for the next 20 years. When he came across information about something I was working on, he graciously took time to send it to me. It meant a lot that he thought of me when doing his own research. He would send me a copy of his latest book and I would return the favor when mine were completed. We shared an interest in Adam Huntsman, and his research on the Huntsman farm in Madison County was invaluable to me. (Most of Appendix B of The Peg Leg Politician would not be possible without his endeavors.) I’ve kept all his letters over the years.
Though 30 years my senior, I considered Jonathan a good friend and a mentor. I’ll miss seeing him at the Tennessee Room or receiving a letter from him discussing his research or passing along some piece of information he had uncovered for me. His passion for research and transcribing old records will be dearly missed.
The Tennessee Room has established a fund in memory of Jonathan Smith, which will be used to purchase a digital microfilm reader/scanner for the Tennessee Room. A memorial plate will be attached to the reader/scanner when it is purchased. It is our hope that the use of this machine will help perpetuate the memory of his dedicated work in reading and abstracting records from an unmeasurable number of microfilm rolls.
To contribute to this effort, please write a check to:
Tennessee Room Endowment – Jonathan Smith Memorial
and send to:
ATTN: Tennessee Room
Jackson/Madison County Library
433 E. Lafayette St.
Jackson, TN 38301