Eddie Smith (right) and son Chris Smith at a 2018 fishing tournament in Hatteras.

Eddie Smith, Grimesland

When Eddie Smith moved to eastern North Carolina 53 years ago, he not only purchased a failed boat-manufacturing business, but he answered the call of the river.

“When I could sneak half a day off, I had a little 14-foot creek boat, and I would go down the Tar River to Chocowinity Bay. Back then, the sea grass went out 100 feet from the shore and was just filled with every type of marine life and any kind of fish you could find,” Smith said. “And I saw that start to decline.”

The owner of Grady White Boats was already involved with many conservation efforts — serving on national boards of organizations trying to protect water quality and preserve the natural environment for future generations — by the time the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation was founded in 1981. For Smith, PTRF’s mission aligned with his own, and that of the business he grew to become one of the most respected boatbuilding companies in the world.

“If you look at our company’s philanthropy, especially our foundation’s philanthropy, we do a pie chart of our areas of interest, and one of our biggest pieces of the pie is conservation,” Smith said. “It lines up, obviously very well, because if we don’t have healthy waterways, people are not going to want to recreate in or on them.”

In addition to supporting many organizations and projects through the years — Tar River Land Conservancy, Nature Conservancy, Coastal Land Trust, NC Coastal Federation, Coastal Conservation Association, Conservation Trust for NC, providing funding for land preservation, oyster and fish habitat restoration, and support for fundraising events — Smith joined the PTRF board early on. The early days were lean, he said.

“I would say for most of us, we had a direct tie to the Tar-Pamlico watershed. If you look back at the guys, in my mind, that did most of the heavy lifting — the Mr. Leaches and Dr. Larkins — they were passionate about it. We all had ties to the watershed and interest in it. We spent a lot time trying to figure it all out, as we were scratching to keep the lights on and pay the director,” Smith laughed.

Keeping the lights on for one occasion meant Smith made a memorable donation: a ’57 Thunderbird raffled off as a fundraiser. The raffle netted PTRF more than $40,000 and made one ticket-holder a very happy classic-car owner.

The Smith family has continued its support for four decades: in 2015, son Chris served a pivotal role as a board member, guiding the merger of PTRF and Neuse River Foundation into Sound Rivers. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation provided special funding for water-quality monitoring and flights to document impact, mapping inundated swine/poultry sites, river cleanups, a post-impact report and outreach and education regarding flooding, climate change and more.

And for the past four years, the foundation has supported Sound Rivers’ Swim Guide, which is the No. 1 reason why the water-quality notification program has been able to get off the ground and grow.

According to Smith, that’s what they do — and have done for decades.

“We tend to help the things that help the people of eastern North Carolina get started,” Smith said. “One of the things I’m proudest of is helping organizations that are protecting the waterways, protecting our resources. … People have no idea the value of the rivers and the sounds to North Carolina.”