“I didn’t want to let the cat out,” Mr Smith told The Tennessean newspaper in 2002. “I wanted to keep him in the bag longer.”
Marion Otis Smith was born on September 24, 1942, in Fairburn, Georgia, the only child of Otis Smith, a farmer, and Bernice (Stephens) Smith, a homemaker. His parents later divorced and he was primarily raised by his grandparents.
After earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from West Georgia College, he joined the military and served two years in South Korea. He was released in 1969.
Back in Georgia, he spent several years working different jobs, ones that paid little but asked little in return, allowing him to spend as much time as possible underground. Eventually he cleaned up a bit, and in 1974 he was hired as an associate editor at the University of Tennessee, responsible for preparing the 16 volumes of President Andrew Johnson’s articles for publication. He retired in 2000.
With Mrs. Jones, he finally bought his first home in the early 2000s, on a backcountry trail north of Chattanooga called Bone Cave Road. He married once, but briefly. Mrs. Jones is his only immediate survivor.
The caves were his life, but exploring them was not his only passion. He was perhaps the world’s foremost expert in the history of mining saltpeter, a primary ingredient in gunpowder, which in the 19th century was often harvested from caves.
In the 2010s, he joined Joseph Douglas, a historian at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, in a project to document the thousands of signatures left by Confederate and Union soldiers at Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky. Mr. Smith was particularly interested in researching the men themselves and he eventually wrote about 80 miniature biographies.
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