After earning his law degree, Smith clerked for Judge William E. Miller of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. He then worked as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Howard Baker and as an executive assistant for former Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn before launching his own publishing business, M. Lee Smith Publishers, and weekly newsletter, the Tennessee Journal, in the mid-1970s.
Smith headed the company, which published an array of legal newsletters focusing on employment law and other topics, until retiring in 2005. The Tennessee Journal covered Tennessee government and politics. Smith also wrote a column on Tennessee politics carried in approximately 40 Tennessee newspapers and provided political commentary on WSMV and, later, WTVF, in Nashville. He was a fixture of Nashville election coverage for many years.
“Lee was a devoted public servant, successful entrepreneur, loyal law school supporter, and terrific person. We mourn his loss,” said Dean Chris Guthrie.
Smith played a part in exposing a scandal that caused Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton to be ousted from office. Smith was interviewing the Tennessee House speaker for the Tennessee Journal in 1977 when a childhood acquaintance, Roger Humphreys, showed up to take photos. Smith was flummoxed when he recognized Humphreys, as he knew Humphreys had been convicted of shooting his former wife and a man to death in 1973 and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Smith confirmed through the Tennessee corrections department that Humphreys, the son of a county patronage chief for Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton, had been hired as a state photographer on a prisoner work release program. He published a brief newsletter item about the encounter. Smith’s report set off a storm of controversy around Blanton, who had used his power as Tennessee governor to pardon three prisoners and reduce the sentences of 49 more, including Humphreys. His successor, Governor Lamar Alexander, was sworn into office three days early to prevent Blanton from issuing more pardons.
Smith moved to Ponte Vedra Beach with his wife, Marilyn, in 2005 after retiring and selling his publishing company. The Smiths returned to Nashville several years later to be near family.
Smith was a loyal member of the National Commodore Club and a devoted supporter of Vanderbilt athletics, especially basketball. His seats at Memorial Gym were on the front row. During one game, the basketball bounced off the floor directly to him. The referee intended to award the ball to the other team. Smith disagreed and rolled the ball back onto the court past the official. The referee ordered him out of the gym. His exit drew a standing ovation from Vanderbilt fans.
Smith was an avid golfer and a member of the Golf Club of Tennessee. He also ran many road races with his son, Marshall, and was a long-time chairman of the Franklin Classic Road Race Committee.
He is survived by his wife, Marilyn, their three children and four grandchildren.