One Man Becomes Another's Hands, Feet And Family

Apr 11, 2014
Originally published on April 11, 2014 7:24 am

When he was a high school sophomore, Collin Smith was in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic.

Ernest Greene, 50 years Collin's senior, had never met Collin, but he attended the same church. And when he heard about Collin's accident, he decided he wanted to help. He offered to do whatever Collin needed, from taking him to school to helping him shave. And when Collin began college, Ernest went too.

"What made you want to go to college with me?" Collin, now 23, asked Ernest in a visit to StoryCorps in Asheboro, N.C.

"Well I looked at your life and I roughly estimated that it would cost $50,000 a year for somebody to be with you 24 hours a day, five days a week so that you could go to school," Ernest says. "It sure wouldn't have been in the cards for me to have to pay that kind of money. I didn't figure it would be in the cards for you and your family. And so I offered to go to school with you."

"Did you ever think, 'What have I got myself into?' taking care of me? " Collin asks.

"Probably a few times. My day started at 4:30 in the morning. Sometimes it was 14-, 16-hour days, and at that point I was getting very tired," Ernest replies. "I'd be ready to go home and you were [ready] to do something else."

"Yeah, sometimes compromising isn't the easiest thing to do," Collin says.

At Collin's graduation ceremony, the college president turned to Ernest and awarded him an honorary degree.

"I don't think I've been any more shocked in my life," Ernest says. "I didn't think I had done anything more than any other person ought to do."

"We started together and we finished together," Collin says. "It was only fitting, because you were my hands and feet when I couldn't use mine. So it's more than just being a friend. You're like a father to me, a grandfather. And you became family."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's Friday, which means it is time for StoryCorps, and today a story from Asheboro, N.C. We'll hear from 23-year-old Collin Smith and his friend Ernest Greene, who is 72. When Collin was a sophomore in high school, he was in a car accident that left him without the use of his limbs. Ernest attended the same church as Collin's family and though he'd never met Collin, he decided he wanted to help.

He offered to do whatever Collin needed, from taking him to school to helping him shave. And when Collin began college, Ernest went too.

COLLIN SMITH: What made you decide to go to college with me?

ERNEST GREENE: Well, I looked at your life and I roughly estimated that it would cost $50,000 a year for somebody to be with you 24 hours a day, five days a week so that you could go to school. It sure wouldn't have been in the cards for me to have to pay that kind of money. I didn't figure it was going be in the cards for you and your family. And so I offered to go to school with you. Can you remember what your attitude was towards me that first year at college?

SMITH: I wanted to be just like any other college student, and that's just not possible. I knew I needed help, but at the same time I wanted to do my own thing like my friends.

GREENE: That first year, you didn't hardly want me to open my mouth.

SMITH: Yeah, I got more comfortable and it was really cool in class. Sometimes the professor would ask you questions.

GREENE: And sometimes I was asleep and didn't hear the question.

SMITH: Yeah, I'd have to nudge you and you'd say, what? What did they ask me? But you've allowed me do anything and everything. Did you ever think, what have I got myself into, taking care of me?

GREENE: Probably a few times. My day started at 4:30 in the morning. Sometimes it was 14, 16-hour days, and at that point I was getting very tired. I'd be ready to go home and you were...

SMITH: Ready to do something else.

GREENE: Do something else.

SMITH: Yeah, sometimes compromising isn't the easiest thing to do.

GREENE: Both of us pretty strong-willed, aren't we?

SMITH: Yes, we are. Tell me about graduation day.

GREENE: Well, I had already decided I wasn't gonna let somebody else push you off the stage.

SMITH: So by the time they put up on the stage, the president of the college started talking about the way you went to school with me.

GREENE: And gave you your diploma.

SMITH: And gave me my diploma. I was ready to go and then all of a sudden, he's like, hold on. He ended up giving you an honorary degree.

GREENE: I don't think I've been any more shocked in my life. I didn't think I had done anything more than any other person ought to do.

SMITH: We started together and we finished together. It was only fitting, because you were my hands and feet when I couldn't use mine. So it's more than just being a friend. You're like a father to me, a grandfather. And you became family.

GREENE: The voices of Collin Smith and Ernest Greene at StoryCorps. They received their degrees last year from Highpoint University in North Carolina. Like all StoryCorps interviews, this one will be archived in the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress and you can get the StoryCorps podcast at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.