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New Role in a Changing Town

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page VA08

The clock hits 6 p.m. at Herndon's immigrant-friendly Neighborhood Resource Center, and nearly all of the homework assistance volunteers have long gone home. But Darryl C. Smith is still explaining a grammar assignment in faltering Spanish to a bashful second-grader from El Salvador named Giovanni.

The 8-year-old boy is struggling with the lesson, his round cheeks blushing every time he says, "I don't understand" in Spanish. Smith, 54, a big man who towers over Giovanni, hangs his arm across the back of the boy's chair. "That's okay, it takes time. You'll get it," he says softly.


Darryl C. Smith, right, visits with Virginia Del. Tom Rust at the town picnic. Smith spent more than 30 years with Herndon's police department before being elected to the Town Council and chosen as vice mayor this year. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

Giovanni grasps the comfort in Smith's voice, if not the meaning of the words, and looks relieved. He sheepishly mumbles, "Gracias, gracias." He has found someone who cares about his struggles in school.

At the center, which provides human and education services to town residents, the children still call Smith "Captain Smith" even though he put away his police uniform and retired from the town's department in September.

But his involvement in Herndon's affairs continues. In May, Smith became the first African American elected to the Town Council, garnering the highest number of votes of any candidate in Herndon's history, despite the fact that it was his first campaign. His council colleagues chose Smith as vice mayor.

Smith's newfound political stature is hardly apparent from the way he volunteers among low-income residents, town officials said. Whether helping immigrant children with homework or discussing policy with colleagues, they said, he is always affable and kind, lacking any trace of the self-important politician.

"I came from a poor community, and it was hard," said Smith, a Herndon native. "I understand that everyone has bumps along the way. I always tried to treat people with respect, to do what I can. . . . But if you aren't genuine, people will see through it."

Longtime Herndon politicians said that Smith's sincerity has made him exceptionally popular and a potential candidate for mayor or higher office. Even Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, also elected in May, admitted half-jokingly, "I'm just glad he didn't run for mayor."

More important, town officials noted, Smith's background and life story could make him the right leader at a time when Herndon is grappling with tremendous change. During the 1990s, the number of Latinos grew 264 percent; now, more than a quarter of Herndon residents are Latino. Overall, the town has more foreign-born residents than any jurisdiction in the Washington area, according to the 2000 Census.

"Obviously we've been an all-Caucasian council to this point," said former mayor Richard C. Thoesen, who was one of the town's most popular politicians. "I think [Smith] can help us make the transition . . . as in having the empathy and seeking to understand what our new neighbors need, as opposed to judging them before we understand them. Empathy can mean a whole lot when you are trying to meet the needs of our community. And he certainly has it, and we certainly need it."

Few people in Herndon have worked more closely with the town's poor immigrant families than Smith. In 1993, he helped found Vecinos Unidos, or "neighbors united," a successful after-school program in Northern Virginia that operates the homework assistance program at the Neighborhood Resource Center. Over the last 11 years, Smith has helped thousands of immigrant kids with their homework or kept them out of gangs by organizing soccer teams and Boy Scout troops.

Born when Virginia was largely segregated, Smith knows what it is like to be a minority. Through most of the 1970s, he was the town's first and only black police officer. When racial strife broke out in Herndon in 1974, whites cursed Smith because he was black. Blacks cursed him for "siding" with whites, he said.

"I never took it personally; I just kept doing my job," Smith recalled. "I understood that if people had a problem, it was between them and the courts, not with me."

Racial clashes between blacks and whites have given way to conflicts over immigrant issues in Herndon. A focal point has been a day laborer pickup site at a 7-Eleven across from the Neighborhood Resource Center on Elden Street, the town's main street. There, mostly Hispanic men gather looking to be offered work from contractors and others seeking temporary help. Residents say the site is an eyesore and also complain about related problems such as overcrowded homes and large numbers of illegal immigrants.

In September, council member Ann V. Null advocated dismantling the Neighborhood Resource Center in a controversial letter in a local newspaper partly because she said she did not support spending tax dollars for services that could help illegal immigrants. In the same letter, she characterized immigrants as "cooks, maids, janitors and gardeners."

After many residents criticized Null for her comments, the council voted a rare censure of Null, who apologized, saying she did not intend to come across as racially insensitive. Smith voted for the censure but was more conciliatory than his colleagues during his public comments. Privately, in a phone call, he invited Null to come out and see what goes on at the center.

"I still hope she'll come," Smith said on the day recently when he was helping Giovanni. "When you see the faces of these kids, how can you not want to give them what you know?"

Then, gesturing to Giovanni, he added, "A young child like this who comes home with homework and your parents have no knowledge of things like American history, I can imagine the helpless feeling the child has. But can you imagine the helpless feeling of the parents?"

Simply put, Smith said, his job is to be a father figure for those children when their parents have to be at work. Smith is married and has three grown children.

Like many of the immigrant families who receive help at the Neighborhood Resource Center, Smith's parents worked two jobs each to make ends meet when he was growing up. His mother cleaned houses; his father was a truck driver. Each weekday night, they cleaned offices together. Smith was left at home with his five siblings, with no one to help him with his schoolwork but an older sister.

Smith was born in a small Victorian farmhouse on Sterling Road, across from an elementary school that he attended when Virginia's schools were segregated. After integration, the school closed and the building became the headquarters for Herndon's police department, which he joined in 1973.

Smith said he never intended to be a civil rights pioneer. Back then, he said, he simply wanted to be a cop and needed a job.

His arrival in the department caused little reaction, said former police chief John R. Kirk, who hired Smith. Kirk said he made only one request of Smith: that he cut his five-inch Afro.

Hiring Smith, Kirk said, "wasn't a big deal. . . . I interviewed the man, and he walked a straight line. I didn't see any problems, so he got the job."

Over time, Smith became one of the most popular officers in the department. Many police officers noted that Smith's generosity wasn't limited to minorities.

Brad Anzengruber, who recently took Smith's place in the community policing division, said it was hard just to drive down the street with him in the car because so many people would wave and want Smith to stop and talk.

"If you look at community policing, Darryl is the model for it," Anzengruber said. "It doesn't burden him to have people go to him if they have a problem. If anybody hears something, they'll go tell Darryl about it."

At Smith's well-attended retirement party in September, which drew a cross section of Herndon's population, former council member Richard Downer recalled how Smith once responded to a robbery but couldn't talk to the victims because they spoke only Spanish. That motivated him to learn the language.

A few years later, Smith traveled to that family's native village in El Salvador to better understand the travails of Herndon's growing number of immigrants.

When he heard that many immigrant schoolchildren had little to do in the afternoons when their parents were still at work, Smith started Vecinos Unidos with two friends.

"He is a 100 percent genuine person who cares about the community," said O'Reilly, who succeeded Thoesen as mayor. "It is easy to say that, but he has demonstrated it for his entire time on the police force, for the entire time he's been in town. He simply loves the community, but he does it one person at a time. There are 23,000 of us in Herndon, and I think he would go out of his way for any member."

Politically, O'Reilly added, Smith "probably could go as far as he wants to go."

For now, Smith said, he has no plans to run for higher office. In fact, he said he hasn't even thought about whether he would be a Democrat or Republican (Herndon's seven-member council is nonpartisan). He said he is just focused on the tasks ahead: learning how to be a good council member and continuing to volunteer at the Neighborhood Resource Center. Smith has no immediate plans to take another full-time job.

His job now, Smith said, is helping one immigrant child at a time, even it if means spending a few extra hours in the evening to help a boy like Giovanni learn his subjects and verbs and move a step further down the path of life.

"The reward is when you see one of the kids you've helped become president of his class at McNair [Elementary School] or when you see your kids volunteering at polling places. Or you have kids quit gangs and thank you for getting them out," Smith said. "That's when you know you're doing your job."


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