By LYDIA BERGLAR
To the world of caving, Marion Smith is known for exploring an impressive 8,291 caves in his lifetime. To Joy Odom, local historian and lifelong friend of the caver, he was a friend, a fellow history-lover, and an irreplaceable character. It is because of Odom and the Dade County Historical Society that Smith left his large collection of notes and articles to the Dade County Public Library.
Born in 1942, the caver passed away on Nov. 30, 2022 at the age of 80. The New York Times published an obituary (which can be accessed online) sharing his story, legacy, and unique personality.
Odom grew up with the caver in a small town similar to Trenton. She recalled, “We grew up in Fairburn, about 25 miles southwest of Atlanta. Everybody knew your grandmother and your grandfather, but it doesn’t exist anymore; Atlanta has eaten the town.”
Smith worked for Odom’s father and they attended the same college. “We parted ways when he joined the army, and I married and moved away. When my husband and I moved to Dade County about 30 years ago, my husband worked for the National Park Service at the Chickamauga Battlefield. I heard that Marion was a regular visitor there and we reconnected.”
The two remained friends from then on, and Odom worked for Smith on research projects related to caving and history. The caver published many articles about caving, but he also studied the history surrounding caves.
According to Odom, “He was very interested in the combination of caving and history. He worked as an assistant in conserving the papers of President Johnson. Through caving, he discovered that during the Civil War, northern soldiers in particular who were in this area found the caves and signed their names.”
Smith published articles on this topic, and Odom researched the stories of the people behind the signatures.
Odom continued, “His other area of expertise is about the use of caves for making ammunition. The chemical niter is found in some caves, and they mined it during the Civil War to make bullets.”
Smith refused to use a computer, so he hired Odom. “He was a luddite. He would not have a computer, but a lot of what he wanted to do required technology.” This aversion to technology fit with Smith’s simplistic life and his resolve to live the way he wanted, regardless of society. Odom added, “He never had a vehicle that didn’t look like it was ready for the junkyard because that wasn’t important to him.”
“He kind of was always a little old crotchety man, even when we were in high school,” said Odom.
Smith’s parents divorced when he was young, so he was raised by his grandparents. Odom recalled, “He always signed his name as Marion O. Smith. The O stands for Otis, his grandfather. I’m not sure Marion loved anyone else the way he loved his grandfather.”
In 2003, Sports Illustrated published an article about Smith titled “Going Deep: How a Curmudgeonly Caver Discovered a Subterranean Wonder, Infuriated an Entire Sport and Then Rescued the Cavern From Ruin.” According to Odom, the author, Michael Ray Taylor, perfectly captured Smith’s character.
The article (available online) was about one of Smith’s greatest accomplishments: discovering the Rumble Room cave in Tennessee just in time to save it from becoming part of a sewer system. Smith and a team of cavers mapped the cave over the course of several years before alerting the public so that it would remain unaffected by the sewage system of Spencer, Tenn.
Odom explained that Smith’s passion all started in 1966 when someone took him into a cave for the first time. “It was like a narcotic. He was hooked. Knowing him growing up, you would never have thought he would become that, but when he found his passion, it cut him loose. He was still caving less than a year before he died.”
Smith died of leukemia and had undiagnosed heart issues. Odom recalled, “He just wasn’t interested in taking care of himself. When he told me he thought he was going to die soon, I asked what he had. He said he thought it was leukemia, and I asked if he’d been to the doctor. He said, ‘Yeah, but I was supposed to go back and I didn’t. I couldn’t be bothered with Medicare.’ There was nothing you could say to him that would change his mind at all.”
With waning energy, he was unable to cave at the end of his life. Odom said, “He was utterly depressed that he couldn’t do what he loved. I was almost thankful that he died pretty soon after because I hated to think of him being that way for a long time.”
Caving, traveling for caving, researching, and writing consumed Smith’s life, but friends were also important to him. He created his own family of cavers and friends such as Odom and Ken Pennington, another Dade County resident who explored with Smith.
In a Facebook tribute to Smith, Pennington wrote, “Our last days together were spent ridgewalking, looking for any hole in the earth. As both of us were old, me 80 and he 79, we walked slowly around the mountain sides…I was amazed that my friend was still able to crawl into the most difficult entrance and again when he managed to return to the surface.”
Odom and Pennington attended Smith’s funeral in McMinnville, Tenn. and were surprised to see how many people traveled from across the country to attend. In addition to the eastern United States, Smith had caved in Mexico and eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic countries, and met many people along the way.
In Pennington’s words, the funeral included “many great comments describing the satisfaction of just being with him on thousands of caving and pitting trips. I returned home knowing that I would never go ridgewalking with my friend again, but I swelled with pride that I had known him.”
Smith and Odom talked about how to make his works accessible to people. She explained, “There’s no point in us having them if somebody can’t walk in here and find what they’re looking for. He said he would think about it, and the next thing I knew, I got a call from the library that he had dropped them off. He died two weeks after that.”
Odom is hard at work indexing the papers by names of articles, names of caves mentioned, and names of every person mentioned. “I’ve learned from talking with him over the years that camaraderie among cave people is very important. Any time he told you about going in a cave, he told you who went with him.”
Smith spent the end of his life in Rock Island, Tenn, but he visited Pennington and Odom frequently. The friends recalled, “He would visit and talk until all hours of the night, and then go out to sleep in the back of his truck. He utterly refused to stay in the house. You’d be sitting around for hours and then all of a sudden he’d say, ‘Well, time for me to go,’ and he’d be out the door before you could say anything.”
“People at the funeral were shocked that we have the papers,” said Odom. “He had an association with the University of Tennessee and Sewanee, and he certainly could have given them to larger organizations than us. We’re going to do right by him and his work.”