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Hampton Roads businesswoman Pearl Smith dies; once headed Navy Wives Clubs of America

By SANDRA J. PENNECKE | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 19, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Pearl Smith may have been small in stature, but her presence and sense of humor were always larger than life.

Smith, who died on March 12 at the age of 89, leaves behind her adoring family, including four sons, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren, plus friends, colleagues and admirers near and far.

Helen Preti of Virginia Beach said she will miss her friend of 40 years, who was outspoken and passionate about life.

“No matter what, she was Pearl,” Preti said. “And she always believed that you become part of whomever you know, meet, and touch — and so if that’s the case all of us have part of Pearl in us.”

Smith’s achievements spanned decades, starting with her election in 1966 as the national president of the Navy Wives Clubs of America.

It was in that role, as a spokesperson for military wives, that Smith defined her commitment as a champion for women.

Her life’s work focused on women’s equality in the workplace, and she showcased that through founding the Women’s Network of Hampton Roads and the Women’s Quarterly.

Her most recent endeavor was launching The Roundtable, a women’s group dedicated to the Democratic party.

Smith delved into politics in 1968 as the director of the congressional campaign for G. William Whitehurst, a Republican, but later changed her affiliation and became a Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia Beach, said in an email that Smith was a trailblazer who did much for the community.

“She was thoughtful and caring,” Luria said. “I was lucky to count her as a mentor and dear friend.”

Smith held many roles that placed her front and center in the community, including director of the 1970 Census for Hampton Roads and the first manager of public affairs and community relations for the Christian Broadcast Network.

For 15 years, she worked as the director of public relations, special events and fashion — exhibiting her own impeccable flair — for the area’s Rices Nachman department stores.

Patty Ritzi, co-owner of Premier Events in Virginia Beach, met Smith 37 years ago when she was hired as her executive assistant at Rices Nachman.

“Pearl was brutally honest and always had a solution to whatever the problem, personal or professional, and always lifted me up with her advice,” Ritzi said. “I’m thankful for all of the lessons she shared with me over the years and for her voice in my head.”

Smith was recognized as the 2003 Business Community of Hampton Roads Woman of the Year; 2010 Girl Scout Council of Colonial Coast’s Woman of Courage, Confidence and Character; 2009 Rotary Foundation International Paul Harris Fellow; and the 2010 Virginia Beach First Citizen.

For 23 years she was the executive director of the Central Business District Association in Virginia Beach, and her strategic determination contributed to the development that is Town Center today.

Gerald Divaris, chairman and chief executive officer of Divaris Real Estate, said Smith was a very energetic individual and he admired her spunk.

“She rallied the supporters of Town Center together and diplomatically handled the political forces at the same time as the requirements of the local community,” Divaris said.

Divaris said it required a special individual to manage the group and attend to their different needs and expectations.

“I was very blessed to have known her and to have worked alongside her,” he said.

Ten years ago, Smith took on the role of director of women’s programs for the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

In this role, Smith booked nationally known speakers to share their wisdom with Hampton Roads’ professionals.

Bryan Stephens, president and chief executive officer, Priscilla Monti, senior vice president — programs and communications, and Anne Thuma, director of events, were eager to share how Smith made a difference in their lives.

“She was unique in every way, and I mean that in a very positive sense,” Stephens said. “I’ve never met anybody that was as strong a leader as she was as well as being humble at the same time.”

A self-proclaimed supporter of women leaders, Stephens said Smith was well ahead of her time — standing up for women as leaders long before it was commonplace.

And he said he treasures the handwritten notes she wrote to him — the last one coming a month ago.

Monti said she often told Smith how she wanted to be her.

“It is rare that you see a woman who is so supportive of other women,” Monti said.

Reflecting on her days as a broadcast journalist, Monti said Smith was a powerhouse when Town Center was under construction. “If you needed a contact for anything, Pearl had it,” Monti said. “Pearl knew people from heads of state to the dog catcher. She had a network like nobody else.”

And it was those contacts that Smith brought to the podium for the Chamber’s women leadership events.

“Nobody could say no to Pearl,” Monti said. “And she had that art of being able to make other people feel good.”

Thuma, who came to the Chamber at the start of her career, said it was a little intimidating at first to work with Smith, but she was someone who taught her so much.

“She gave me so much wisdom that you don’t learn from a textbook,” Thuma said.

sandra.pennecke@insidebiz.com

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