To hear Shirley Smith tell it, there are dozens of people more worthy of honor and recognition than she could ever be.

She’s quick to point out the admirable traits and accomplishments of everyone around her and offer praise for their efforts and contributions.

But ask some of those people about Shirley and you’ll begin to see why the 76-year-old, not-ready-to-retire, director of human resources for the HealthCore Clinic on East 21st Street, is this year’s winner of the HealthCore Hero of the Year Award.

“She’s our fairy godmother,” says HealthCore Controller, Shipla Shiva. “She just waves around her little fairy wand and makes good things happen.”
It may not be quite that magic, but her hero award lauds Shirley’s unique ability to connect with people and make each and every new hire feel comfortable.

Her award bio reads: “Shirley treats everyone with the same respect and positive attitude.She genuinely embodies the company’s spirit and core value in everything she does and inspires all of us to do the same. Her true commitment to quality shines through in every task she does.”

Shirley brought a long history of success in the business world with her when she came out of a short retirement to join HealthCore in 2009.  Her husband of 30 years had recently died of pancreatic cancer and Shirley wasn’t someone who could just sit around.  

A lucky decision

Sometimes, Shirley says, she still wonders how her life might have turned out had her parents not taken the advice of an aunt and uncle and moved from her birthplace in Jamestown, La., to Newton, KS when she was a small child.

“I might have been a nurse or a teacher. But more likely, a poor farm wife raising a passel of kids.”

They were poor in Jamestown.

“I still remember arriving in Newton and thinking it was as big as New York City,” she says now. “We were still poor. But there was hope and exposure to ideas.” 

She was one of only two African-American students at Newton High School when she graduated at the age of 16 in 1964, with her heart set on moving to Los Angeles and finding success in the world of business.

“I wanted to be in business. Back then, it was called ‘executive secretary.’ I wanted my desk to be right outside the office of the CEO.”

Ups and downs and ups

She landed a secretarial position with McDonald Douglas in LA and began to learn about all the things she’d been sheltered from growing up in Newton. 

“In LA, I was just in awe. It took me three days to get a ticket for going the wrong way on a one-way street and a week to get stopped for going too slow in the fast lane.”

She learned about the Civil Rights movement that had been largely ignored in Newton.

“We didn’t even hear about the protests in Wichita,” she said.”Martin Luther King was at Tabor College and we didn’t go see him.”

She experienced some of the hard side of life as well. She learned about being a teen-aged mother. And experienced being a battered wife until she found the courage to walk away.

Eventually, she came home to Newton and went to work in an administrative position for the General Conference of Mennonites, moving steadily up the career ladder with jobs at the Wichita Urban Renewal Agency., Pizza Hut, Metz Lumber and finally Boeing Aircraft. She met her late husband, Val Smith in 1976 and they were married in 1979. 

When she joined Health Core in 2009, it was a small clinic, but through the years it has grown into a three-story building offering a wide range of health services to the surrounding community, including a dental clinic and a pharmacy.

Shirley says she enjoys helping the clinic to hire and promote good employees and she doesn’t see that changing.

“I love being around people. I always have. And we’re doing good things here for the people of the community.”