Hulett Smith, 93; W. Va. governor led progressive changes

Associated Press/file 1979

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - Hulett C. Smith, the former West Virginia governor who signed bills in the 1960s that abolished the state’s death penalty and implemented its first strip mining laws, has died. He was 93.

Mr. Smith’s family announced yesterday that the former governor died Sunday in Arizona, where he had moved to an assisted-living facility last fall. Mr. Smith, a Democrat, first ran for governor in 1960, but failed to win his party’s nomination. He was elected four years later, at a time when governors were limited to a single term.

During his tenure as the state’s 27th governor, the Legislature enacted measures to control air and water pollution and to protect human rights.


When he signed the bill ending the state’s use of the death penalty, Mr. Smith noted that West Virginia was the ninth state to do so and said it would prevent wrongful convictions leading to executions.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“All of this is part of a groundswell of public opinion favoring the abolishment of the death penalty, for the possibility of judicial error in such cases is a wrong that can never be righted, because it is almost always too late,’’ he said in prepared remarks for the March 1965 signing.

Another significant measure enacted during his term was the Modern Budget Amendment, which made the governor responsible for developing the state’s budget.

Born in Beckley in 1918, Mr. Smith was the offspring of a political family. His father, Joe L. Smith, served eight terms in the US House of Representatives, from 1929 to 1944, and founded Beckley’s first radio station, WJLS, in 1939.

Hulett Smith attended public schools in Raleigh County, and graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance and Administration, where he majored in economics.


Following his graduation from the Wharton School, Mr. Smith worked in the insurance business and at his family’s radio station. During World War II he served in the Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant, and ultimately became a lieutenant commander in the US Naval Reserve.

He was a licensed private pilot, and in 1947, Governor Clarence Meadows appointed him to the state aeronautics agency, on which he served for 12 years. From 1956 to 1961, he chaired the state Democratic Executive Committee, and he became the first commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Commerce, where he served from 1961 to 1963.

After leaving public office in 1969, Mr. Smith returned to work at the Home Insurance Agency, becoming president of the company. He also took on duties as secretary-treasurer of two Beckley area hospitals.

In retirement, Mr. Smith became an outspoken advocate for the environment.