LARGO – No matter where Patricia Bates Smith goes, the spotlight seems to follow.
Smith, 81, is a long-time Pinellas County resident and a lifelong volunteer who has enriched her life and her community by sharing her multitude of talents.
Whether it’s volunteering as a costumed docent at Pinellas County’s Heritage Village, serving as a Pink Lady at Morton Plant Hospital, teaching swimming, sailing and tennis, or performing the lead in a community theater production of Hello Dolly! at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Smith fills each role with her fireball brand of energy and a credo learned early in life.
“My mother said when I was in high school, … you can join as long as you work,” Smith said, referring to joining one of the high school-based Pan-Hellenic organizations in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn.
And work she did. Smith joined the Alpha Omega Pi sorority and hasn’t stopped joining or working since.
After college, Smith married a U.S. Army officer in 1954, moving from Memphis to base after base over the next 11 years. Although some people may be overwhelmed by setting up nine different households over six years – landing finally in Panama for three years – Smith always took on more.
“I taught swimming for (the Army base.) I taught Girl Scouts. You name it. Cub Scouts. People say, ‘What haven’t you done?’” Smith laughed. “I even had Girl Scout troops and I didn’t have any girls!”
Smith did have two boys with her first husband, Major Andrew D. Parker Jr. Army life ended when he was killed in the Vietnam War in 1965.
The tragedy didn’t derail her zest for life.
Smith moved to Clearwater in 1967 after marrying her second husband, Byron A. Smith.
Now with three boys to raise, she became a member of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, volunteering to serve as den mother for the Cub Scouts and putting on the church’s annual rummage sale, joined the Windlasses women’s sailing group as a founding member, volunteered to give tennis and swimming lessons at the YWCA, worked for the Sandy Bookstore in downtown Clearwater, becoming manager along the way – the list goes on and on.
“How can you not find something to do?” Smith asked. “My mother used to say, you’re going to run yourself into the ground. And, I said I hope I do. I hope I don’t end up sitting in a chair somewhere.”
In 1983, following the death of her second husband, Smith, then 50, found another outlet for her unbridled energy. Acting in community theater gave her talents a place in the spotlight.
Smith had been in theater troupes during her college days. With that background, she volunteered backstage with the Royalty Theatre Company at the old Capitol Theatre, but decided to audition when the musical Sweet Charity was slated for performance.
“I said (to a male Company member) that they’ll never put me in. He said, ‘No, no. They can’t all be young and attractive. Some have to be tired and used-looking.’ I said, ‘Thank you … I’ll accept that challenge.’”
Smith got the part and began a 10-year stint with the company and a 30-year-and-counting love affair with the stage.
“I think I’ve been in over 75 productions,” Smith said. “One year I did five musicals. That’s, say, at least two months per show. One of my friends said, ‘Whenever you get through, call me and we’ll do something. I’m not calling you anymore.’ But, that was a big year to do that many.”
Smith also worked with the Eight O’Clock Theatre at the Largo Cultural Center for more than 14 years and won three awards in one year for her performances in a musical, a comedy and a drama.
Even with the accolades, according to Smith, theater can be brutal to the ego.
“But age really doesn’t matter in the theatre as long as you hold up your part,” Smith said. “And, being newly widowed, it was great because I finally found all the crazy people I’ve been looking for all my life.”
Smith also acted with the Clearwater City Players, Francis Wilson Playhouse, West Coast Playhouse and Richey Suncoast Theatre playing lead roles in Hello Dolly!, Chicago, Nunsense, Steel Magnolias – her credits are just too numerous to list.
She also judges Pinellas County high school thespian competitions leading to state-level competitions. She sees all of these experiences as valuable.
Smith also found opportunities volunteering with the Pinellas County Historical Society and, two years ago, helped honor all of Pinellas County’s volunteers when she played Molly Brown in a production celebrating Pinellas County’s centennial, featuring notable national figures over the last century.
That role was natural for her since, according to Smith, she had the costume. But she also has a tie to the role. Her youngest sister, Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, played the likeable gold-rush-rich matron in the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic.
Acting must run in the family.
“It’s the Irish,” Smith said. “The Irish comes from (my father’s) side. Daddy could tell you stories and sort of mesmerize people.”
Smith mesmerizes too, with a full life large enough for any stage.