Above, clockwise from top left: Donny at 2015 Share-a-thon; Donny with AFA volunteers at Feed Tupelo during COVID-19 relief project: Donny, Sadie, Logan, and Lorie at Sadie and Logan’s wedding.
August 2020 – “This is where I’ll die,” Donny Smith told his wife Lorie as an expression of his love for his work as campus administrator at AFA. At 58, retirement wasn’t on his radar just yet; he simply found great joy and satisfaction in his work and knew AFA was where his career would culminate when it was time.
He had no idea his words would become his reality only a week later.
On April 17, 2020, Donny died of a massive heart attack only hours after beginning his workday. He was just a few months away from celebrating nine years of service and ministry at AFA.
“I couldn’t believe he stayed that long because he’s an entrepreneur type person, not a punch-the-clock kind of guy,” said Alison Wildmon, wife of AFA president Tim Wildmon. “But he just found his niche here and loved it.”
AFA hired Donny to oversee the buildings and grounds – a job Alison had been doing on a volunteer basis.
A relational person
“We were tremendously blessed to have shared life with Donny Smith,” said co-worker Anne Reed. “When giving tours at AFA, I always introduced him as ‘Do-It-All-Donny.’ Donny loved doing for others. It was the essence of who he was.”
And the work of Christ in his life was the reason for all that he did.
“He was always the giver … the servant,” said his daughter Sadie Smith-Ayers. “He just realized that without Christ, it was impossible for him to fulfill the attributes he had. That understanding changed him from being a nice guy to being somebody who was leading people to Christ.”
To some, he was a “Barnabas,” to others a “Paul.” To all, he was an example of what it meant to live a life of faith, selflessness, and servanthood. There was no denying what his son-in-law calls Donny’s “Damascus Road” experience.
A rebellious past
“Donny had a testimony of rebellion,” said his son-in-law, Logan Ayers.
“He was always very transparent about his past,” his daughter added.
Donny grew up going to church but never developed a relationship with Christ. He and his wife Lorie began having marital problems when Sadie was around 2 years old and separated, largely due to spiritual differences. Donny chose years of infidelity and substance abuse while Lorie and Sadie turned to their church family for support.
“Through that time, we all were just being covered in prayer by so many people,” Sadie said. “Then there was a turning point. It was like a light switch. My dad said, ‘This is not how I was meant to live. This is not what I’m called to do.’”
Donny phoned his estranged family, and Lorie answered.
“She could tell in his voice that he was a different person,” Sadie said. “From then on, he just really tried to place people in his life that would mentor him and push him in the right direction. He evolved into a mentor in his later years, doing the same thing for other people. His mentors molded him into the mentor that he was for so many later in his life” – one of those being Logan, who grew up with an absent father.
“Donny Smith completely altered the trajectory of my life,” Logan said. (See below.)
A redeemed purpose
Whether Donny was tinkering with hot rods, riding horses, caring for animals, or driving the Ole Miss football team’s equipment truck across the country – all of which he enjoyed doing – he was always investing in others and serving them with a contagious smile. There are countless testimonies of Donny “saving the day.” From changing flat tires for strangers, to feeding those in need, to employing a recovering addict, to providing rides and vehicles to stranded friends, Donny was a humble servant who shied away from recognition.
“He would do anything to help somebody at all times,” Alison said. “He was the most giving person I’ve ever met.”
His work at AFA allowed him countless opportunities to expand on his life of service to others and helped him find his purpose.
Logan added: “Things don’t happen without the ‘Donnys’ of this world.”
His AFA co-workers would affirm: “How true!”
From Donny’s co-workers
“Seeing how genuine of a man he was is fulfilling for me.” — Kyle Verrell
“He really was the man who took care of everyone.” — Whitney Vitagliano
“What a blessing to have been able to see his servant’s heart in action … over and over again.” — Fred Jackson
“Donny was a shining example of Christ’s love and sacrificial servanthood.” — Austin Brooks
“Donny Smith was a man of God with a servant’s heart.” — Jody Brown
“If it was a rough day, Donny’s presence was one that caused me to see the day differently.” — Jason Tross
“I want to be more like Donny because he makes me want to be more like Jesus.” — Randall Murphree
“Jesus was very evident in his life, and I’ll always remember him by the example he lived.” — Matt Murphy
My family will forever be grateful for the example Donny walked out before us every single moment.” — Kim Ayers
“Donny Smith was a true servant to everyone he knew.” — Angie May
“Thank you, Donny Smith, for showing me how to love my neighbor as myself.” — Marty Sparks
“A man’s man through and through with a strong love for God, his Lorie and Sadie, and the rest of his family.” — Durick Hayden
A life changed (photo, Logan and Donny)
My first memory of Donny is when I was 7, but the real memories begin about 15 years ago. My parents were going through a separation that ultimately ended in divorce, but Donny and Lorie were counseling and encouraging them through it. [After a restored marriage themselves], he and Lorie spent a lot of time counseling and encouraging couples through their darkest times with an empathy that could only be earned through experience.
When I was 14, my father made the decision to leave. Lorie and Donny continued to pray for my family, but they also continued to act. They made the decision to spend almost all of their spare time with a single mother and her three kids (one of them being me). Sadie and I became the best of friends, and Donny became my father figure.
He gave me my first job at 15 as a clean-up crew worker for … his construction company. He taught me how to change a tire, what a hard day of work looked like, the importance of a firm handshake, and how to serve in marriage. He did these things by giving me a front row seat to his life for the past 15 years.
I think he provided me dinner and a ride home about six nights a week from ages 15-18. He taught me how to act with integrity when your business and livelihood go from hero to zero, how to apologize when I’m wrong, and the importance of keeping your promises to yourself and others. He gave me his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Through all the good times and bad, he was there, which taught me the value of consistency. Because of Donny, I try to be more conscious of helping other people achieve their dreams and fulfill their God-given purposes. I aim to carry myself with more humility, to act more consistently, to serve more intentionally, and to see people for who they can be and treat them accordingly.
Donny also taught me that you don’t spend time talking about things; you just go and do them. He didn’t have to quote Scripture to me, he just exemplified humility and service. Donny showed me how to be a husband, a father, and a man.
— Logan Ayers