August 18, 2020

The Smithonia 10 give us hope

            With newly minted diplomas from one of the best public universities in America, nine University of North Carolina (UNC) graduates were ready for rocket rides into their careers. But if prestigious Chapel Hill had been their launching pad, why did these scholars land in Smithonia, a historic crossroads in Oglethorpe County?

            The answer: COVID-19.

            When you harness 10 bright minds, including a Georgia Tech grad, a pandemic can become an opportunity-laden detour rather than a roadblock. Years from now, I predict the Smithonia 10 will say this summer’s experience made their careers’ soar even higher.

            I felt that energy and possibility surging inside the brick walls of the 115-year-old brick commissary that once served James Monroe Smith’s 20,000-acre agricultural empire.

When Atlantans John and Jane Robertson bought their Smithonia farm in 1996, the commissary was in shambles—three walls and no roof. Their oldest grandson, Nicholas Byrne, who would become a distinguished UNC Morehead-Cain Scholar, was born later that year.

Today the three-story structure is more than a place to store John’s tractor and tools, house historical artifacts and provide accommodations for family and guests. It’s an incubator of hope. Our across-the-road neighbor John said, “If you look around this room, you have to feel good about America. Young people, like these, give us hope.”

After studying advertising and music at UNC, Nicholas set up a video and audio production studio in the commissary to explore his passion—digital music. The bricks absorb the sound, but I can see lights burning into the night. Nicholas’ digital wizardry has attracted attention from some of Nashville’s biggest artists—Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt and Keith Urban—asking him to design advertising campaigns.

But for a 23-year old—pandemic or no pandemic—life can be lonely, miles from the bright lights. With his grandparents’ blessings, Nicholas masterminded a problem-solving idea. He invited nine of his friends to join him in Smithonia to “create a community” and collaborate. As a rural think tank, the 10 have quarantined themselves for most of the summer.

The blue-chip roster includes grads from across America and one from Singapore. Their academic interests are wide-ranging: business, environmental science, technology, photography, music, dance, choreography, performance art, artificial intelligence, studio art, philosophy, religion and public policy. Several are enrolled in graduate schools, including UGA. Two are MIT graduate students.

Vijay Rajkumar was born in Boston and grew up in Singapore. Vijay and Benjamin Tasistro-Hart will take their life lessons from Smithonia back to MIT for their second year of graduate architectural studies. Vijay said, “We are spread out across the country, but we came together to use COVID-19 to our advantage.”

 Heads nodded.

 They all endorsed the creation of a community of collective collaboration on music, art, architecture, entrepreneurship, video, social media and cooking. With the mention of cooking, Eric Lee, self-anointed pit master, broke into a grin.

Heads nodded, again.

They really liked John’s teaching them how to roast a pig on the Fourth of July. When I was in the commissary, the aroma of barbecuing ribs wafted around the room.

John, a retired Waffle House executive, said, “We wanted them to experience all the good things about living in the country.” The curriculum included fishing, fileting fish, sailing, shooting skeet, playing bridge, picking figs and swimming in the lake. Oh, yes, and cooking, the consensus “bridge builder.” Sam Lowe summed it up, “Learning anything ‘Big John’ offers his wisdom on.”

With summer almost over, the Smithonia 10 are drifting away. Make a note of these names: Cameron Champion, Elinor Walker, Eric Lee, Vijay Rajkumar, Sam Lowe, Marissa Kuczkowski, Benjamin Tasistro-Hart, Annie Simpson, Scott Diekema and Nicholas Byrne.

John’s right.

While COVID-19’s cloud hangs over us, these bright minds are among the reasons there is hope for America.

The Smithonia 10 proved this pandemic doesn’t have to be a career roadblock. Instead, they showed creativity and collaboration can provide a life-enhancing and uplifting detour to lifetime goals.