From Felon to Philanthropist

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Smith, 45, is executive director of the McKenzie Foundation and President of Songbirds Guitar Museum [ℹ️ City Guide] in Chattanooga.

The McKenzie Foundation, founded by W. Thorpe McKenzie, has total net assets of $9.84 million dollars and gave away $1.9 million in 2015, according to its 2015 IRS form 990. It gives primarily to education and social services in the Chattanooga region. McKenzie is a Chattanooga native who gained fame as the co-founder in 1980 of the hedge fund, Tiger, and has invested in multiple hedge funds since.

Songbirds, located in the Terminal Station complex, seeks to make Chattanooga the “center of guitar culture for America,” said Smith. The collection includes many one-of-a-kind guitars and some of the most expensive and rare electric ones ever made. Its exhibits are designed to show how guitars–“songbirds”–irrevocably influenced American culture and are accessible for all ages. The following story was edited for length and clarity.

I call drums my golf. I don’t do extracurricular activities. I mean this in a very humble way—drums are the only thing I’ve ever been really good at and that I feel comfortable in and good at, sometimes. I made my living with it for several years.

But in the 1990s I was playing drums Wednesday through Sunday until 2 a.m. at the Governor’s and then going to work early managing a tire franchise. Meth was running around the club. I think because my Dad was a preacher and I was raised in the church and had a foundation of morals I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to drink. I tried weed a couple of times but it didn’t put me in a good place.

I didn’t want to be a square, though. I would sit in the car with the guys doing meth, but I’d strategically place myself in the backseat and be the last person to snort it and just wipe it off without anyone noticing. But then one day I was with the same guys and they were smoking it, and there was no way to avoid trying it. I took a little in and blew it out. Do you remember “Popeye”—what happened after he ate his spinach—that’s how I felt. I didn’t feel high, I just had energy. I went home that night and couldn’t go to sleep.

The next morning it started wearing off—I had been up for over a day. I called the guy who gave it to us in the club and asked him if he had more. As soon as I got off work I drove straight to his house and with no sleep it immediately made me feel better. I started figuring out that if you buy more you can get it for less so I started selling it to my friends. I had money from working two jobs. The dealers liked me because I paid them.

Eventually I quit my day job and kept the music going as long as I could. My dealer didn’t feel a whole lot different than the people I was used to dealing with. But it turned out that he liked other people’s wives and girlfriends. My girlfriend ended up spending time with him and that created turbulence in my relationship with him. Shortly after that they were both murdered in Cleveland by a guy that I was dealing with in some sales. I was actually called by investigators because I was the common denominator in the case. I was very close to getting caught. It caused me a tremendous amount of fear and sorrow, but I felt like I was protected from it.

What happened is that I found another guy manufacturing it. I got all the resources and sold them to him at a tremendous profit. I realized the level of danger and was completely fearful of it, but it just didn’t register. I guess that’s called addiction. That guy got involved in a federal case and for some reason this guy didn’t give up names. After that, I started the process on my own.

I was a little more careful than some people, but the drug task force was all onto me. At that point I had been involved with drugs for about three years. My arrest was a very gentlemanly thing. They pulled up in a Nissan Pathfinder and handed me some papers that said United States versus Johnny Smith Jr. Seeing the Jr. is what bothered me the most. My dad died of cancer when I was ten. When I saw the Jr. all I could think was “what have I done?” They didn’t handcuff me. I went in front of a federal magistrate and they let me go on my own recognizance. When that happened I thought I was going to get out of it. Shortly after that 9/11 happened and my case was delayed. But they drug tested me and told me that if I were to fail a test they would immediately incarcerate me. I completely quit. The ease of it, the lack of pain was completely a miracle from God. At that time I had no relationship with God, but that is the only explanation for how within a few days I was acclimated back to normal. With that time delay before the trial I felt like I hadn’t done anything wrong—I had changed.

I’ll never forget, Paul Laymon, who was then a U.S. attorney, he leaned way back in his chair and put his hands behind his head and said, “Why are you into this? You’re different.” I can literally picture it now. I felt like he saw something in me that no one else did. It made me feel better.

I was sentenced to seven years and three months. I had a hard time accepting that. Eventually the government placed me in Manchester, Kentucky in a prison camp, which is where they put white collar criminals and those with longer sentences who are transitioning out. The hiccup is there are some violent people there—people who did violent things that they never got caught for. I felt incredibly betrayed because a large part of my case was built on people who were close to me, telling on me.

I did the typical thing—blamed God for what happened and didn’t hold myself accountable. There was a church service there and I started playing drums on Sunday. I realized that people were a little bit excited about my talent. I embraced it. It was one of the things that helped people respect me. With men it’s all about respect. If you can bench 550 pounds then guys are enamored of you the stupid way men are. I wasn’t playing because I wanted to hear the service, but eventually I started hearing things that were hitting home. I realized I needed to be a very different person that what I created of myself. My heart started changing, I started accepting accountability and thinking about all of the families I had impacted by making drugs available to their family members.

One of the hardest parts of prison was knowing the pain and embarrassment it caused my family. We weren’t wealthy, we didn’t have status, but we were good people. Many of the men in my fam- ily are or were preachers. My mom had to answer to people who used to call me little Johnny. I’m 6’5 and 280 so it’s kind of funny. But she had to explain what I did. And you don’t make any money in prison, but it’s not a free place to be. You gotta have tennis shoes and t-shirts and underwear. Here I am in my 30s needing my mom who doesn’t have any money to make sacrifices.

One of the things about prison is that you learn to write letters again. The phone was really expensive, so you did the snail mail thing. Now we’re into this instant gratification thing. The biggest event of the day in prison was the mail call. You feel so great to have four or five envelopes and then it gets to the point where you don’t have any. I kept every letter I ever got. They are in my office. I occasionally go back and read some of them. I don’t do that with emails.

Eventually I got a job working in the religious services department so I could be close to the drums. Anita Carmack, who ran it, always called me Johnny. To everyone else I was number 183-074. That was really unique—just like Paul Laymon, Miss Carmack made me feel different and saw something in me that I wasn’t seeing in myself.

The new Songbirds Guitar Museum is expected to open in January.

The new Songbirds Guitar Museum is expected to open in January.

One day I told her, “we’ve got some good musical talent here. What are the chances we could put a program together and play for the kids in the community?”

It’s a really rural area consumed by addiction. We wanted to do two things—prevent them from getting into the uniforms we were wearing and show family members that there is hope for those in prison. We had to pitch it to the warden. It was a big deal. He had about 1,000 staff, 600 inmates in the camp and 1,500 at the higher security prison he oversaw. We needed one staff member per three inmates, so it would require a lot of volunteer time. He let me do it. And Miss Carmack allowed me to select the men for the program. I didn’t announce that. It was a really private trust thing. At that point I really started to practice what I was preaching because kids have the best noses.

When I got out in December of 2006 I really underestimated the difficulty of getting a job. I always had employment fairly easily. Luck of the draw, my sister knew somebody who knew somebody that worked out with a guy that had a store that sold lights and they worked it out that I got an interview. I went to Goodwill so that I could interview in a suit. Being such a big guy I couldn’t find a pair of pants and a coat that were from the same suit, so I wore a navy blue coat with black pants. One of my socks had a hole in it. I didn’t have any clothes. Zero. What the government didn’t take, honestly, people did.

After a four-hour interview, the owner, John Queen—he’s now one of my best friends and mentors—offered me a job in his warehouse paying $10 per hour. I was so happy. I thought $10 an hour, that’s not bad, but I didn’t realize that it isn’t a livable wage. But I had it and was very fortunate, and I told myself that I had to start at the bottom. So I worked this job, and to be honest, it wasn’t hard to outwork the people around me.

My stepdad was so kind. I’ll never forget. He had a 1982 baby puke brown Buick Regal with a rust spot in the right rear. He let me have it so I had a car to drive to work.The carburetor was messed up—sometimes it would start and sometimes it wouldn’t, you’d turn it off and it would act like it still wanted to run. It was the worst car, but I was so happy to be driving. It’s funny how you get humbled. Before I liked to impress people by talking about the celebrities I’d play drums for or talking about how I had played on a national TV show. I took way too much pride in letting that stuff paint the picture of who I am. When I was stripped down to not having anything, I was fine with it.

Within 18 months I had 22 people working for me and a company vehicle. Entitlement is a really bad thing. Starting in the warehouse was the best thing for me. It gave me the ability to have the whole picture.

One day we had the ability to do a large residential design project on Lookout Mountain. I bid it and it was a lot of money. We landed the job. I never met the homeowner. Because it was an outside lighting job I had to check it out at night. I drove up at about 9:30 one evening. I was told the homeowner was a businessman who travelled a lot and wouldn’t be at the house. So I’m Neanderthalling around the yard adjusting lights in this high-end residential area, and I heard someone playing guitar. I was at a crossroads of leaving and not knowing if it would set off an alarm. And I didn’t want to get pulled over by the cops—at that time I was still on federal probation—so I knocked on the door. And that was the first time I ever saw Thorpe McKenzie.

He was the kindest man I had ever met. Immediately I knew it. He asked me if I played guitar and I said, “No, I’m a drummer.” And then he asked me if I liked blues and of course I said, “Yes, I love the blues.” I can’t say I love the blues, but I didn’t want to give him the wrong answer. Then he asked me about my favorite artist and I remembered something we used to play at the Governor’s, “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas. Next thing I know he was playing and singing it to me, bouncing around from foot to foot the whole time just having the time of his life. He wrote down my phone number and said he had a place he liked to play music with some buddies. I told him to give me a call, but I thought he never would. The next day he calls and I meet him here at the Key Club. We started playing and eventually we put a band together. The first month I called him Thor—I just didn’t know. He never corrected me. Just shows you how sweet he is.

About six months later Thorpe offered me a key to the club. He didn’t know my past. I never lied to him, just didn’t tell him. But at that point I told him everything. He was really quick to dismiss it. He already had his opinion formed of me and even something that dramatic wasn’t going to change it.

Soon after he told me, “I have this foundation, and I give some dough away every year.” I had no idea what that meant. Basically, he and his executive assistant would write a bunch of checks in December when they knew how much money the investment dedicated to the foundation had earned. In December of 2010 he hired me to take over the foundation. I had a suit made, because I wanted to represent Thorpe well. I had tons of pride. I didn’t have to sell lights anymore, and he gave me the opportunity to start something that was established but not really established.

I didn’t have a skill set that prepared me to be an executive of a philanthropic foundation giving away about $1 million a year. When we got those checks at the end of the year I started just going to the organizations individually and asking them what they do. I don’t know where the guardrails are in this business. I’m just crashing parties—not a kamikaze but I’m darn near close. A lot of people have helped me understand how things work, too.

I finally feel free. I don’t have to impress anyone anymore and I can be really honest. It’s the reason I don’t wear suits anymore. The way you’re seeing me with my shirt tail out and blue jeans on and tennis shoes, this is how I visit people, even the foundations.

I know everything would change if I didn’t have the foundation money behind me, and I’m well aware of that. What’s important for me is to make the best of it and hope it lasts forever. If it doesn’t, I can say I’ve done some really good things and it makes me really happy. If I have to go back to living in a little house in Soddy Daisy, as long as I have my wife and son I could drive an ’82 Buick Regal I don’t care. I really don’t.

For me my story is such an enormous God thing that I can’t deny it. I have to give the credit to something bigger than me. This much happenstance doesn’t happen.

 

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About Author

Recent Chattanooga transplant Marta Mossburg fell in love with our scenic city, relocating from Maryland. She’s written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, The American Spectator, the Tribune network of newspapers, Patheos.com and The Greensboro News & Record, among other publications. Marta Mossburg is a frequent contributing writer for Chattanooga Magazine.

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