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TURNER: A man in demand: From Opelika to around the world, Auburn grad serves nation

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He started out as a paper boy for the Opelika-Auburn News.

Today, he travels the world with the United States secretary of state and is in charge of providing a secure line of communications between the secretary and the White House.

America’s most secret negotiations – ranging from talks in North Korea to prevent nuclear war, to talks in Paris to prevent terrorist attacks – depend on this Opelika native and Auburn University graduate doing his job.

Humble beginnings

Lee Smith grew up in Opelika, a member of the high school’s Class of 1986.

“I was a paper boy for the O-A News for four years,” he recalled in a conversation Friday. “I threw 61 papers a day, and would make $42 in one month. That was big-time money for a kid in the 80s!” Smith said.

His recollections struck a personal chord for me because that was when I began my own career, working as a reporter at the Opelika-Auburn News and filling those very newspapers with the stories he delivered.

Both of us have gone around the world a few times since those days, and Smith still goes.

Today, Lee Smith serves as the secretary of state mobile communications branch chief, “or as everyone always asks, where’s the comm’s guy?” he chuckled.

That role makes him Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s right-hand communications expert.

The job literally requires Smith to travel with Pompeo and whether it be in a high-tech country like Russia, China or France, or in a much more access-challenging environment like North Korea, his job is to make sure talks with President Trump or others back in Washington, D.C., are secure and protected from spies and hackers.

It seems that delivering the news one way or another has remained in Smith’s job description for a long time.

High praise in D.C.

He must be pretty good at what he does.

Last week, Smith made news in Washington when he was presented one of the State Department’s top honors, the Thomas Morrison Information Management Award. That tag probably doesn’t say much to you and me, but some of the highest-ranking officials in American government who put so much trust into Smith were among those congratulating him, including the woman Trump just tapped as our new ambassador to the United Nations.

“The State Department would not be able to communicate without Lee,” said Heather Nauert in a statement to the Opelika-Auburn News on Friday, only hours after Trump announced her new role. Nauert previously served as spokeswoman for the State Department.

“He enables the secretary to speak with the president and other world leaders in the air and on the ground, from Alabama to Afghanistan, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said of Smith. “His true Southern charm and sense of humor keep us motivated and always laughing even when the mission is tough.”

That mission for our top foreign diplomats does indeed often get tough, and Smith knows how to define tough.

He also has on his resume service to our country as a Marine, and then as a soldier assigned to a special operations unit with the Army.

He’s been a few places and seen a few things you and I don’t want to see.

In the field

Still, when prodded a bit, there clearly are plenty of stories that he can tell.

Surrounding various tours of State Department duty at American embassies abroad, he returned to serve with multiple secretaries of state, including John Kerry, Rex Tillerson and now Pompeo.

“I remember the terror attacks in Paris. I was with Kerry when we learned of it,” he said of when they were traveling to a different destination. “Of course, things kind of change once you have a terrorist attack against a major ally.”

Kerry changed his plans and redirected his travel so that the U.S. could show strong support for France and solidarity in the fight against terrorism.

“One thing I remember about Secretary Kerry is that, here he was, a 70-something-year-old, but he was working so hard as if he was a 17-year-old.”

A story of serving with Pompeo came to mind from a recent trip to China for sensitive high-level talks with Chinese leaders.

“We landed in China. The secretary had to go into Beijing for some meetings. Me and few others stayed near the plane in a lounge, or holding area,” Smith said. “We got word he’d have major calls coming as soon as we take off.

“I said ‘I’ve got to get back to plane before (Pompeo) does to get ready,' and to prepare for an immediate call with the White House,” he said. “But the Chinese guard did not want us to leave. They wanted us to wait and leave as one group.

“Finally, something distracted the guard in charge, and I just took off walking toward the plane. The guard was shouting something at me, but I just kept going. The guard stopped pursuing me, and my folks asked if I realized I could have been shot.

“I said I’d rather be shot in the back by the Chinese than not be prepared for Secretary Pompeo’s call!”

It's still home

It is just that type of service and dedication that keeps Smith high on the appreciation list for those around him in Washington.

“Lee is one of Secretary Pompeo’s most trusted advisers and ensures that the secretary is able to communicate with the president and other national and world leaders in a highly secure way,” State Department press officer Drew Bailey shared with me.

“Whether by phone, email, live video conferencing, etc., these critical forms of communication must be accessible to the secretary 24/7 from any place in the world – and must be able to withstand espionage, hacking, terrorism and many other serious threats,” Bailey said.

He apparently also still enjoys talking about his family roots.

“Lee is a proud graduate of Opelika High and like you, he is also a graduate of Auburn University, where he obtained a master’s in information science,” Bailey said. “While his job demands that he travel to every corner of the globe at a moment’s notice, and that he reside in the Washington area, Lee still considers Opelika home.”

I asked him when he might be making a trip back home or coming back to catch an Auburn game, something he said he still enjoys.

He has plenty of memories from home, including working at the former Diversified Products plant in Opelika. And when that work didn’t allow him to take day classes at Auburn, he would drive to take night classes at Auburn University at Montgomery.

“It was a long, miserable drive in an old Toyota, but it got me there, and I got my accounting degree,” he said, followed later by his master’s at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business.

“My grandfather had a metal shop on Frederick Road, where now a Home Depot and all that is?” he said, quizzing the area’s growth. “All of that back then was just woods and pasture.”

Seeking world peace

Yes, Lee Smith will notice quite a few changes when he returns to Auburn and Opelika, but don’t expect that to be too soon.

The man in charge of keeping the president of the United States and his top world diplomat in touch is busy and in high demand. Although, he did mention something else he missed about Alabama:

Homemade biscuits.

Maybe he can use that someday to promote world peace. It seems to work here, as everyone shuts up for a good biscuit.

Thank you, Lee Smith.

Well done.

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at tturner@oanow.com and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.

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Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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