Sidney Lamar Smith III

Published 11:30 am Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sidney Lamar Smith III, husband, father, poet, and Artist Communities Specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts, died on Thursday, Dec. 28, of a sudden illness at home in Ellicott City, Md. Smith, known to all as “Pepper,” was 53.

Born in Oxford, Miss., and raised in Gulfport, Miss., he grew up surrounded by a culture that valued art, storytelling, music, and a rich spiritual life. Those early influences, along with his generous spirit, made Pepper a beloved friend to many. Along with his wife Jenni, he devoted himself to enriching the lives of others. He is remembered for his kindness, curiosity, quirky wit, creativity, and astonishingly varied pursuits.

His wide range of interests began in childhood playing mid-fielder for Gulfport High’s inaugural soccer team and serving as a riflery instructor to emerging twelve-year-old gun enthusiasts at Alpine Camp despite never shooting a gun before. He earned degrees in English from Millsaps College and Journalism from Ole Miss. During college, his entrepreneurial spirit was sparked founding the Pepper Tie Company, whose upscale neckties briefly graced the most fashionable men’s stores in the South as well as Barneys New York. He traveled the Southeast covering gospel music as co-editor of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s Rejoice! magazine and traveled farther doing missionary work in Honduras and China; soaking up culture and working odd jobs in Paris and Brussels; and serving in the Peace Corps in Szechuan, China, where he earned extra money by sitting in the window of a local tea shop whose owner thought the sight of a Westerner would entice customers.

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Although never one to seek out the spotlight, Pepper was known to pop up in unexpected places: performing gospel music on the Mornin’ with Buddy and Kay TV show in north Mississippi and acting as a colorful impromptu public access TV host for the Corinth, Miss., homecoming parade. Most recently, he could be found mentoring numerous young people in Al Anon programs; meeting regularly with his poetry group; actively publishing short stories and poems; and advising aspiring performers in his role at the National Endowment for the Arts.

His faith drove a deep sense of social justice, often using his gift for language to shed light on these matters. As faculty advisor to Mississippi College’s student newspaper, he fought the school’s attempted censorship of articles critical of a scandal-ridden benefactor. Even his master’s thesis addressed the racial inequalities in newspaper coverage of the civil rights movement.

Throughout all of these endeavors, Pepper continually sought out ways to encourage and connect people. Through emails and handwritten letters of support, he knew exactly what to say to inspire. Using his own personal algorithms, he found joy in exposing friends and colleagues to new things particularly suited to their tastes, whether a recommendation concerning a little-known restaurant or a new book or movie. He also delighted in introducing people to others. He saw such good in his friends that when he made these connections, they involved lavish praise of both parties. As one friend put it, “An introduction by Pepper made you feel so special. You always aspired to be the person Pepper saw you to be.”

Pepper met his wife, Jenni Ovenstone, at church in Alexandria, Va. As a couple, they were united in their devotion to serving others, and Pepper was an unwavering admirer of Jenni’s ministerial talents and compassion. They both were dedicated to raising their son Andrew, who enjoyed Pepper’s singular sense of humor, in particular, the twin hand puppets Romulus and Remus, who debated the day’s current events during bath time.

He is survived by his wife, the Reverend Jennifer Ovenstone Smith, and his son, Andrew Austin Ovenstone Smith, of Ellicott City, Md.; his mother, Jane Ray “Jeepsie” Smith, of Taylor, Miss.; a brother, Austin Fentress Ray Smith, of New York City; and a sister, Eliza Lyle Brighton; brother-in-law, Darby Harrison Brighton; nephew, Fentress Welch Morgan; and nieces, Blakely Ann Brighton and Addison Reyce Brighton, of Little Rock, Ark.

Services will be held on Jan. 6 at 2 p.m. at St John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Md., and on Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. in Oxford, Miss. Location to be announced. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to Andrew’s education fund in honor of Pepper. Please send donations by check to St. John’s Episcopal Church, attn. Andrew’s Education Fund, 9120 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, MD 20142. Checks should be made payable to “Maryland College Investment Plan.”