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An Underachiever No Longer

One-time perpetual dropout J.P. Smith is now a highly educated Army chaplain.

U.S. Army Chaplain Lt. Col. John Paul (J.P.) Smith II flunked out of college eight times before earning a doctorate in leadership.

“I went to college for the sports, not academics,” says Smith, 49. Smith, who earned All-State track honors in high school, went to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas on a track scholarship.

During his first semester, Smith hardly seemed like a scholar.

“I skipped class, I didn’t have any academic motivation,” he says. Because track didn’t begin until the spring semester, Smith attended classes sporadically and didn’t keep his grades up. He failed the first semester of junior college, thus preventing him from competing in track.

After losing his scholarship at Hutchinson Community College, Smith went back home to Elk City, Oklahoma, to live with his grandparents, Archie and Catherine Jackson. The Jacksons raised Smith from infancy after his mother, Shirley Jean Jackson, perished in a drowning accident. Smith was raised as the 16th of the Jacksons’ 15 children in their four-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot home.

Smith continued to live with the Jacksons as he tried to earn a college education. Smith enrolled at Southwest Oklahoma State University, where he would attempt — and fail — seven more semesters of college. In 1994, Smith’s grandfather — a pastor in the Christ Holy Sanctified Church, a Black Pentecostal denomination — encouraged him to join the military.

Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a chaplain assistant.

“I told the Army that all I knew was ministry,” Smith says. “I asked them how I could join and do ministry.” Although he didn’t have enough education to be a chaplain, he qualified as a chaplain assistant.

In 1998, Smith decided to give going to college one more try. As an incentive to reenlist, the Army offered to pay for him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Chaminade University in Honolulu. For the first time, Smith finished a semester of college.

“When I was in high school, I kept my grades up so that I could be eligible to play sports,” says Smith. “Then I finally realized that I could pass without sports.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2002, Smith decided to attend seminary, which would make him eligible to join the Chaplain Corps. Smith enrolled at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri.

Smith graduated from AGTS with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies in 2004 and a Master of Divinity in 2005. The same year, he officially became an endorsed Assemblies of God chaplain. In 2007, he decided to go back to school.

“During seminary, I started to love the process of learning,” says Smith, “Leadership is always something that has been intuitive to me, so I decided to pursue more education in leadership.” In 2011, Smith earned a Ph. D. in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Human Resource Development from Regent University in Virginia Beach.

As a fitting testament to Smith’s extraordinary toughness and grit that has supported his faith and ministry, in 2016 AGTS named him the school’s alumnus of the year. Receiving the honor proved to be a poignant moment in Smith’s career.

“I received a jacket when I was All-State in track back in high school,” Smith says, “Going back to Springfield to receive another jacket for success outside of sports was huge for me.”

In 2020, Elk City inducted Smith into its Leadership Hall of Fame, which recognizes individuals from the city of 11,600 whose leadership has an impact reaching far beyond the community. Inductees’ names are added to a granite monument in a local park. The group in the community, which is 89% white and 3% Black, asked Smith to discuss race relations.

“We voted wholeheartedly to put him in our Hall of Fame,” says Billy D. Weatherly, a 67-year-old member of the nominating committee, which is comprised of city officials, school administrators, teachers, and other local residents. “The things that J.P. Smith has done in the military and his willingness to come back to Elk City as a motivational speaker and to help people is exceptional.”

Smith says receiving the award from his hometown in 2020 is significant to him.

“Growing up, I was told that I would never amount to anything or be anything beyond playing sports,” says Smith. “While most people were dealing with the pandemic, I was having this full circle experience that closed wounds that were opened early on.”

As an AG chaplain, Smith is stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state. He is command chaplain for the 12,000 soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division.

The lieutenant colonel also is the executive adviser for the commanding general and senior staff on the free exercise of religion, morale, and ethics, serving as consultant in matters pertaining to religious life and spiritual well-being of all personnel in the 7th Infantry Division.

Smith recently received his next assignment. He will earn a third master's degree, in Strategic Studies, at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The school provides graduate-level instruction to senior military officers and civilians to prepare them for senior leadership assignments and responsibilities.

“Leaders are lifelong learners,” says Smith, who chronicles more of his life experiences in the book, The Image of My Father: Awakening the Champion Within. “The moment we stop learning, we stop leading.”

Ally Henny

Chicago-based Ally Henny is a writer, speaker, minister, and vice president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, an organization committed to encouraging, engaging, and empowering Black Christians. She has her Master of Divinity from Fuller Seminary with an emphasis in race, cultural identity, and reconciliation,