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From baseball to law: Incoming judge describes journey

Steve Nash / Brownwood Bulletin
Mike Smith

Mike Smith made a lot of stops on his journey to the judge’s bench.

He’s not actually there just yet — but he’s close. 

The 48-year-old Smith — he’ll be 49 Tuesday — will be sworn in on New Year’s Day as judge of the 35th Judicial District, replacing Steve Ellis, who is retiring after 24 years on the bench. Smith ran unopposed for the office in the 2020 primary and general elections.

As for some of Smith’s previous stops:

There was Smith the baseball player. Smith the school psychologist. Smith the law school student in Denver, Colorado. Smith the lawyer in private practice with the Haynes Law Firm.

‘Ready to get going’

Smith, who is married to Brownwood High School principal Lindsay Smith, explained the journey and gave his thoughts on becoming district judge in a recent interview in his law office.

“I’m excited, ready to get going,” Smith said. “What’s been a nice thing for me is that I didn’t have to go through a contested primary or a contested general. So I’ve effectively known what I’m going to be doing since December of last year, and I’ve had a chance to prepare and to think about it. 

“That’s really been where my mind has been, while still doing my regular day job. I’ve met with Judge Ellis quite a bit throughout the year and the court staff, and really just thinking and preparing as much as I can.”

From Texas to Colorado and back

Smith, a Brownwood High School graduate, is not a Brownwood native. He moved here from Lampasas with his parents when he was 4 or 5 years old. Smith’s father’s job with a food distributer called White Swan, which later became US Foodservice, brought the family to Brownwood.

Neither is Smith a Lampasas native.

To understand Smith’s journey, you have to go back a few cities — to Lubbock, for a start, where Smith was born, and then Denver, Colorado, which quickly became a part of Smith’s very young life.

“I was born in Lubbock, but for the first six months or so we actually lived in an apartment on East Colfax Avenue in Denver while my dad was in the Air Force,” Smith said.

After Smith’s father left the Air Force, the elder Smith’s job as a civilian took the family back to Texas, where they lived in Lubbock, Austin, Waco and Lampasas before settling in Brownwood. 

Brownwood, Perry Mason and Texas Tech

The city of Denver would play a role in the lives of Smith and his family.

“My parents fell in love with Denver, and essentially every time it was Christmas or Spring Break, we were going to Colorado,” Smith said. “It just became our thing, so when it was time to go to law school, that seemed like a good place to go to law school.”

As a boy growing up in Brownwood, Smith and his family made trips to Lubbock to visit other family. One of his relatives was an uncle who’d gone to Texas Tech University. Smith’s uncle would take him to the Tech campus and point out buildings including the Tech law school.

“He would talk to me about going to law school a lot, and we watched Perry Mason,” Smith recalled. “He was the first one that just got me thinking that way.”  

The best laid plans

But after Smith graduated from Brownwood High School, where he played baseball, his plans revolved around baseball, not law.

“When I graduated high school, I had a dorm room picked out and I was getting enrolled and registered,” Smith said. “I was going to go to Tech and I was going to play baseball. But at the last minute I got a scholarship offer at Hardin-Simmons so I went and played baseball at Hardin-Simmons for one year.”

Smith later transferred to Abilene Christian University to play baseball, and it was matter of packing up and driving a short distance down Ambler Avenue in Abilene to get to his new home. He majored in education.

The way Smith saw events unfolding, he would finish his college career at ACU and then play third base for the Texas Rangers. And after an MLB playing career, he would coach.

But while Smith was a good college baseball player, he realized he wasn’t skilled enough for the majors.

“Reality set in and I realized that I struggled with 95 mile-an-hour fastballs, sliders and curve balls,” Smith said. “By that point in my baseball career — you start to see the difference between those who make it and those who don’t.”

Turning to psychology program

As an ACU education major, Smith did his student teaching in the Abilene school district. But he realized he liked college and wanted to continue his own education.

Smith’s plans became more solidified after a conversation he had with an ACU baseball teammate, a left-handed pitcher named Jeff Reese.

“He and I were shagging fly balls out in the outfield one day and we were talking about our futures,” Smith said. “He was already in the graduate psych program at ACU, and he really encouraged me to look at it.”

Smith was initially interested in going into sports psychology, and he entered the ACU graduate program.

He was hired by the Abilene school district as a school psychologist. Smith described the job as a “great fit,” and he thought he might end up coaching in the Abilene ISD.

Tennessee calling

Instead, “life just kind of took over,” Smith said. Through a connection, Smith ended up working at a residential treatment center for youth in the Nashville, Tennessee area, where he stayed nine years.

While working with troubled youth, Smith’s duties took him inside the Tennessee juvenile legal system.

“It was coming back around for me,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that process I started looking at going to law school.”

On to law school

Smith had been thinking that Denver, Colorado might be his future home, so going to law school there made sense. Smith graduated from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law in 2009.

After finishing law school, Smith decided to return to Brownwood to be near family. He began working at the Haynes Law Firm in 2010.

A woman from Big Lake named Lindsay Loftin was working in the Tyler school district. Members of the Smith and Loftin families knew each other and managed to get the two introduced to one another.

Mike and Lindsay went on to marry and are the parents of a son and daughter.

‘The right time to think about it’

After Ellis announced he would not seek re-election in 2020, Smith began to think about running for the seat.

“It was just a fit,” Smith said. “The timing was there. It was the right time to think about it.”

Smith knows there will be a learning curve when he becomes judge, and he’ll have the added challenges from the impact of COVID.

He said he has benefitted from watching how his wife and the other Brownwood school administration have navigated through COVID. 

Weather permitting, Ellis will swear Smith into office at 10:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day on the courthouse steps. 

Smith said he is approaching his new job “with a lot gratitude for the opportunity.”