Wanda Smith’s career at Dr. Phillips High School was nearly as long as the history of the school itself. The front-gate security guard began her position at the school six months into Dr. Phillips’ inaugural year, and she remained the booth sentry — the guardian of the Panthers — for nearly 35 years.
Smith retired Nov. 30, and the school made sure she had a fun and deserving sendoff.
“It’s not often that we get to celebrate the work of someone who put 35 years into the same career, same company and same location,” DP Principal Jackie Ramsey said at a retirement celebration held Nov. 28 in the school’s performing arts center. “For approximately 6,261 school days, this campus was secure. But more importantly (she has) the legacy of keeping over 40,100 students safe every single day for 35 years. That’s an amazing accomplishment.”
BECOMING A PANTHER
Smith learned of the position through a friend. When she started, there was no guard booth out front — until a wood shop class built one for her.
Her job was to stop and check all vehicles that came through the front gates, including students, parents, visitors and, more recently, Uber Eats drivers.
She looked out for the students on a daily basis, especially if outside work crews were on campus, and built a great rapport with them. They respected her and trusted her enough to confide in her.
Smith worked under six principals at Dr. Phillips.
“God laid it on my heart to be there for the kids, the parents and the employees,” Smith said.
HONORING A SCHOOL LEGEND
In her final week of school, Smith was showered with presents, gift cards and messages from students. Many wanted to take a photo with her.
“This was a treasure for me; they wrote notes to me,” she said. “Wishing me the best, ‘Thank you so much for everything,’ ‘You are amazing,’ ‘Thank you for keeping us safe.’ … It reminds me of how grateful I am to even be there and be there that long that people appreciate me for what I did.”
At her retirement party, Smith was feted with drum and choral performances, slideshow, gifts and loving stories of friendship and gratitude.
Ramsey shared several stories about Smith, including the tale of the senior prank.
“Back in the day, Wanda’s booth was a little baby blue wooden shack on wheels,” Ramsey said. “Every morning we hooked it up to Wanda's cart and moved it out front. I think it was the class of ’94 or ’95; they were planning their senior prank. They respected Wanda so much, that they went to administration and asked if they could deface and spray paint her booth. They promised they would have it back to its baby blue colors the next day. They came the night before and we let them in to prevent anyone from getting injured climbing the fence. The seniors completely defaced the security booth painting with their grad year and their graduation slogan. But as promised, the booth was back to normal the very next day.”
Ramsey said Smith knew every student, every car, every parent, the UPS driver, the mail carrier, maintenance workers, the fire marshal and the district-level bosses.
When a suspicious car drove onto campus without stopping in 2007, Ramsey said, Smith made a radio call to administration and immediately both school resource officers, two deans, two assistant principals and the principal rushed to the hall gate before the five vehicle occupants could enter the courtyard.
“The men are quickly rerouted back to their car and sent off campus,” Ramsey said. “I have no idea who the intended target was that day or what they intended to do. I do know they had no business on this campus, and I do know they meant business. What I also know is Wanda probably saved at least one life that day if not more. She knows every car and every family and every kid on this campus.”
Ramsey also shared the story of attending a safety meeting with the Orange County Public Schools district and hearing an administrator complain about how hard it was to secure a campus.
“In response, the chief of high schools says, ‘There’s no place more difficult to secure than Dr. Phillips High School,’” Ramsey said. “‘They have 55 acres and over 50 entry points to the campus … but they have the best front-gate staff in Orange County Public Schools. He says, ‘The lady that works that gate does it better than anywhere else. She stops every car that comes in. She greets everyone with a smile and is serious about the safety of the campus. If she can do it there, it can be done anywhere.’ That says a lot about the quality of work of Wanda Smith.”
Others shared stories as well at Smith’s retirement party.
“I had a good time; I really did,” she said. “They told me to look good, and I was looking real good. Jackie (Ramsey) did an excellent speech. I was just blown over, I was so happy, I was so joyous, I was so surprised, I was so thankful, I was just flabbergasted. Everything was nice.”
Smith’s retirement plans are simple — to relax after many years of working two jobs to feed her family and make ends meet. Besides Dr. Phillips High, she worked in the custodial department at Valencia College for 20 years. She retired from that position Nov. 30 as well.
Her two sons and all six grandchildren live in the area, so Smith will get to enjoy more family time.
“The respect people have for Wanda is endless,” Ramsey said.
“I’m blessed beyond measure,” Smith said of her career. “God is so good.”