Ruth Joan Smith Ewing (known as Joan, pronounced JoAnn) was a complex, intelligent, loyal and faithful person. An obituary will not capture the fullness of her life and the life she gave to others. Joan died peacefully at Carol Woods from complications of Parkinson’s Disease.
A native of Emporia, Kansas, Joan grew up in a moderately Republican family where she developed a keen passion for education, following the example of her educator parents. When her then husband, James Ewing, was transferred to Washington, DC in 1979, Joan, the loyal wife, followed. She loved politics nearly as much as she loved Carolina basketball and found employment of her own which suited her.
Joan began work on the Education and Labor Committee for the House of Representatives, working on the committee staff for Congressman Ike Andrews, who represented North Carolina’s 4th District. After excellent work on the Older Americans Act and the federal school lunch program, Joan became Ike’s Chief of Staff. Her sincere interest in helping people and her grasp of the Washington bureaucracy made the job, which she held until 1984, an ideal fit.
A strong, loyal supporter of North Carolina Democrats, Joan headed the 4th District Offices for Congressman David Price from 1987 to the mid90s until Parkinson’s Disease made it impossible for her to work with her characteristic intensity and devotion. Leaving her formal staff position did not stop Joan from working for the Democratic Party. She remained active in fundraising for Congressman Price. In 2008, Joan played an active role in campaigning and getting the vote out for President Barack Obama in North Carolina, which he won.
Joan’s devotion to UNC basketball was grounded in life-long loyalty and support for her beloved brother, Dean Smith. Wherever Dean played or coached, Joan did all she could to help and promote him, including guiding him in life and faith. While living in St. Louis in the time before cable and the Internet, Joan went to great lengths to find out the North Carolina scores, even calling to urge local TV stations to announce scores on the late news. That they did not do, but they did tell her the score, which was part of what she wanted.
While living in Washington, DC and then as a resident of North Carolina since 1985, Joan did her best not to miss a game. When Parkinson’s Disease severely limited her mobility, Joan continued to go to most every home game, including this year’s Senior game against Syracuse. As illness took over, Joan focused on three main goals: going to basketball games, to Binkley Baptist Church and to lunch with friends and family.
Joan was “Mom” to more than her two daughters, Elizabeth and Sarah. Her nieces and nephews, especially the children of her brother, Dean, considered her to be a second mother. Joan also remained in close contact with her niece and nephews by marriage even after her own marriage ended in divorce. Many of her daughters’ friends so valued Joan’s compassion and support that they visited and stood by her as the illness progressed.
Joan lived a faithfulness and exuded a calm and joy that drew others to her. Medical personnel and caregivers at Carol Woods came to visit her , even when they were not on her care team, to get a dose of her welcoming smile and shining blue eyes. Joan’s face and personality projected her internal, infectious joy that made anyone’s day better.
Joan was wicked funny and not above playing a practical joke on others, particularly her nephew, Scott Smith, who initiated or returned the favor. She also loved to joke about herself. One of her stories involved the girls in high school with her, who undertook to make bandages for soldiers during World War ll. Soon Joan was excused from this duty, and told that she could just entertain the other girls with stories, since she was better at that.
Joan was a terrific grandmother and enjoyed having fun with her grandchildren. She loved chocolate ice cream and eschewed vegetables. For this and many other reasons her grandchildren adored her. As young adults and teens they went to great effort to make time to come and visit her.
Smart as a whip, Joan was a Danforth Fellow upon graduation from Emporia State Teachers College in 1950. She led YMCA programming at Bowling Green University in Ohio. From there, she attended Divinity School at the University of Chicago, earning a Masters in Christian Education. She studied with many great theologians, including Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Indeed, lively theological discussion was a hallmark of the Ewing home. After time at home looking after her small children, Joan worked as Director of Christian Education at Delmar Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri and was instrumental in getting a Sipe organ. From there she took at part-time job at what is now Webster University, eventually rising to Associate Dean for Teacher Certification before moving to Washington, DC.
Joan’s laughter, intelligence and intense interest in everyone around her will be greatly missed. She is predeceased by her parents, Alfred and Vesta Edwards Smith, and her brother, Dean Smith. Joan is survived by her daughters: Elizabeth Ewing (Ted Andrews), Sarah Ewing (Tari Gilbert); her grandchildren: Willem and Mary Andrews, and Priya and Maia Gilbert; and her friend and former husband, James Ewing. Also surviving Joan are her nieces and nephews: Sharon (Tim Kepley, Sandy (Steve Combs), Scott (Kelli), Kristen, Kelly (Adam Kimple) Smith; and Virginia, Thomas (Rebecca), David (Tori), Joseph (Camille) Roatch.
Funeral services will be held on April 29 at 11 a.m. at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill with visitation one hour prior to the service. Private burial will follow in Chapel Hill Cemetery and family will join a reception at Binkley Church which follows the service.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in Joan’s memory may be made to Medical Foundation of North Carolina, 880 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Chapel Hill, NC 27514; http://giving.unc.edu/gift/custom/index.htm?fndpic=348554&p=medf.