When recent high school graduate Ed Smith drove his old, un-air-conditioned car into College Station and moved into an un-air-conditioned dorm in 1969, the Tahoka native “quite literally thought it was Hell.”

Smith’s gravelly laugh fills his office as he takes a swig of his ever-present diet Pepsi. But his somber reflection returns as he recalls those who mentored him toward his career.

As an 18-year-old, Smith had only a vague idea of what Texas A&M was, based on what a high school teacher had told him. And he knew nothing of the land-grant university system that began during the American Civil War.

But Smith’s path was steered on a course not of his design and which ultimately led to the position of director of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service — a position from which he retires Friday after 38 years with the land-grant agency.

He now describes his career as just short of heavenly.

“My family was low-income and no one had ever been to college, or even high school,” Smith recalls. “They didn’t believe college was affordable.”

Smith’s father, who was ill, advised his son to join the military with the hope of getting GI benefits to afford an education later.

“But my agriculture teacher convinced my dad that I would work my way through school and that I could make it in college,” Smith said. “Other than my dad, that ag teacher — Lester Adams — had the greatest influence on my life. He provided me the vision and helped me to see that instead of taking basket weaving and playing football, I needed to take biology and chemistry, physics and trigonometry. I went with what he said, and it’s been good.”