Kenneth Smith went viral on Facebook at age 79 for selling kindling on the side of the road. Well, not really for selling kindling.
Smith went viral because he has worked hard all his life and continues to do so. He went viral because he is a kind person who believes in showing respect to others. And because he’s had it hard lately but doesn’t complain. He just smiles and waves at everyone who drives by.
He’s sells kindling — heart pine precisely split into small pieces with his hatchet — for $5 a bag. The neighborhood folks have known Smith since he started selling wood last year at the corner of Carl Leggett and West Taylor roads. His wife, Helen, was with him then, even though she was suffering from cancer.
She died Oct. 29. The Smiths lived on Social Security. Mountains of medical bills during her two-year illness ate up their savings.
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He was selling wood by himself Friday when a funeral procession passed. He took off his wide-brimmed straw hat, placed it over his heart and stood at attention in his Dickie overalls.
Jessica Pittman snapped a picture. She put it on Facebook Sunday. By lunch time Monday, the post had been shared 8,189 times and liked by almost 5,000 people.
Smith’s son set up a GoFundMe page. The goal for the page was $10,000, but contributions exceeded $13,000 by 1 p.m. Monday. One of the donations was from Australia.
“I mean, it went viral,” said Smith, who turns 80 Wednesday. “It overwhelmed me.”
Smith has been working hard since he was in fifth grade, when his family moved here from Texas. His father bought 80 acres of land in Woolmarket, for $10 an acre, in the 1940s and they started building houses. Smith tried college for a year in Memphis, and he worked on the side as a carpenter. He spent his earnings to buy a car and come home.
Most of his working life, he built houses for Carl Leggett. He met Helen, his second wife, at Snowden’s restaurant and lounge in Gulfport, his after-work “pit stop.”
She survived throat cancer 15 years ago, but the lung cancer got her.
So, he’s alone on the roadside, selling his kindling reaped from stumps. He feels a little bad about all the attention and donations. In addition to the GoFundMe account, people were stopping by Monday to give him money. Several people laid $100 bills on him. A car or truck stopped almost every minute.
“I appreciate it,” he told the Sun Herald between customers, “but I didn’t come out here to be a panhandler.”
Nobody thinks he is, especially the neighbors who have gotten to know him when they stop for kindling.
David Myrick said, “He’s just a wonderful, kind man.” They’ve been talking about him for a long time on a community Facebook page that Myrick belongs to, but it’s been private.
Myrick said he stopped a couple of weeks ago and said to Smith, “This warm weather’s not helping you, is it?”
Smith just smiled and said, “No, but that’s all right.”
With all the new business, Smith said he reckoned he better get home and chop up some more stumps.