Vernon Smith MBE JP: The quiet man who has inspired many


Vernon Smith has been unwell. Thankfully he is on the mend, not least because he's a fighter, always has been, and I'm not necessarily talking about his time as a soldier. Vernon has always fought for what he has strongly believed in, and in doing so, this wonderfully big-hearted man has transformed lives. Here Merlene Carrington who was mentored by Vernon gives not just a snap shot of this wonderful man's life, but simultaneously pays great tribute. Simon Woolley.

Vernon was born in Barbados in 1940. He attended school and after various experiences as a joiner, French polisher and kit man for the local cricket team, he fulfilled his childhood dream to become a soldier. As a boy he saw family and friends in the Volunteer Force and loved to watch war movies at the cinema.

In May 1962 Vernon was sworn into the British Army and shipped off to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. As a Tank Gunner, Paratrooper and Missile Crewman in the Parachute Squadron Royal Armored Corp he served in Bahrain, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Libya and Yemen. He was awarded the General Service Medal and demobbed from the army in May 1968.

Now on civvy street, Vernon soon turned his hand to a career in welding. After passing exams in welding and management, he became a Lecturer at Hackney College in 1981. As a skilled welder, Vernon went on to run the Welding Section at the East Surrey College for 10 years, from which he took early retirement.

Not satisfied with serving his country and inspiring youngsters in colleges, Vernon took on a number of voluntary positions: Crisis at Christmas, Merton Vision, Morden and Merton Guild, the Magistracy, Independent Monitoring Board and Streatham Youth and Community Trust.

At the Streatham Youth and Community Trust he was a voluntary youth worker for 21 years, and Chair of the Trustees for nine years. He ran six London Marathons in the 1990s and raised over £15,000 for various charities.

Vernon was appointed as a Magistrate at South Western Magistrates' Court in 1991. He became Chair of the Bench five years later, Vice Chair of the Bench for a further year, as well as joining the Bench at Balham Youth Court and becoming its Chair in 2000. On top of all this he was appointed to the Independent Monitoring Board at Feltham Young Offenders institution, was its Chair in 2001 for two years and its Vice Chair on two other occasions. Vernon further volunteered as a Mentor on the Operation Black Vote Magistrates' Shadowing Scheme in 2004.

In December 2007, Vernon's commitment to community was rewarded with the presentation of the MBE from Prince Charles, for his work at Feltham. In 2011, Vernon enjoyed another visit to St James' Palace where the Queen presented new colours to the Tank Regiments.

This is a great example of a life well-lived. Not only did Vernon manage to achieve his childhood dream by the age of 28, he then selflessly pursued the inspiration and empowerment of others. To colleagues on the Bench he was always the voice of reason. To the youngsters he taught, he was an example of commitment and hard work. To me he was a kind and considerate mentor. During our time on the Magistrates Shadowing Scheme, there was no area that was off limits to me: observations, meetings and social gatherings. He gave me a full experience of what it was to be a Magistrate and I'm so grateful to Vernon for the effort he made for me. In 2005, I became a Magistrate and sat on the Bench for 10 very enjoyable years.

When I reflect on my experience of Vernon so far, I recognise that he is extremely persuasive. Some people shout. Some bang the table and others may manipulate. I have been in the company of many good people who make important decisions about the lives of others: in Court, at Downing Street and in Parliament. Whilst I was on the Shadowing Scheme, I witnessed racist language being used about a defendant. I remember being feeling indignant at the time. However, once I decide to report what I had heard, I felt very supported by Vernon.

What sets him apart is the quiet and very deliberate way he listens to everything being said. He then leaves a little gap, just in case there is more to be said, and then does one of two things. He will ask a question that is so insightful that you wonder how he managed to get "there"? Or, he will offer words of wisdom that just blow you away. Later on, in my Magistrates' career, I was confronted with racist language being used in the Retiring Room. I took a very deep breath before I responded in a way that helped this particular Magistrate understand that his words were unacceptable. He thanked me for pointing this out to him. My time with Vernon taught me how to conduct myself on the Bench with dignity and respect, even in the face of racist language being used.

Vernon, we at Operation Black Vote salute your courage, your enthusiasm, your consistent willingness to engage in the growth and development of others, particularly at a time when Black men continue to be negatively portrayed in the media. Thank you for your service.

Merlene Carrington