Building a life with hidden doors

Situated in historic downtown Marshall, Texas, the offices of Siebman, Burg, Phillips & Smith reside in a building called The Hub. From the outside, it is easy to mistake the structure for an old shoe store.

“This was the Hub Shoe Store from 1897 to 2001,” Michael C. Smith says as he leads us through the completely renovated offices, which boast clever nods to the prior occupants throughout. He has also found a way to use the long hallway as a mini gallery to display local artists’ work. His three boys have a treehouse-like room built just above Smith’s own office—complete with hidden doors that peek out over his desk. Smith has found a way to maximize the functionality of his building, and his life.

In 1982, Smith transferred to East Texas State University, determined to be a computer science major. Then again, maybe he was going to be a photographer. Or perhaps a musician. Smith laughs at his indecisiveness as he recalls, “I had many majors.” He decided on history, but when he talks about his time at the university, you can tell he never really chose to focus on just one subject. He was fully involved in campus life: Student Senate, Golden Leos, band, orchestra, Trombone Choir, French Club. As the “historian” (club speak for “guy who takes all of the pictures”) for the band fraternity, Smith was able to put his passion for photography to good use. He has a treasure trove of photos documenting the sort of university experience we hope all of our students will have: dozens of special events, band and orchestra performances, intense Student Senate meetings, a bunch of students having the time of their lives. He was fully invested in campus life, which as it turns out, became a trend in his life.

After graduating from East Texas State University in 1986, Smith went on to get his master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin and his law degree from Baylor University. But the guy who couldn’t decide on a major certainly could not have been expected just to practice law. The Hub is only one of Smith’s construction projects in Marshall. He invites us to lunch at a local pizzeria, Gucci’s.

He tells us the restaurant had been a mainstay in Marshall for 20 years but closed about a year ago. Smith and his wife, Jamie, decided to invest in reopening its doors. It is lunchtime, and every seat is filled. A gorgeous woodburning oven sits center stage.

“We’re very proud of the kitchen,” Smith says, telling us about all of the ideas he, Jamie and their business partner, Mehmet “Gucci” Sevik, bandied around for the redesign. There is an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. True to form, Smith suggests we try a bit of everything.

When he isn’t practicing law, reconstructing historic buildings and overseeing a bustling pizzeria, Smith might be building a model aircraft carrier—or writing about one. He has written two books from Squadron-Signal publications, “Essex Class Carriers in Action” and “U.S. Light Carriers in Action.” Telling us about getting his first carrier book published, Smith is still astonished: “I got to see them putting it together. This was before you could do it all on one computer program. Here were guys putting together the text. There were guys mocking up a design based on my specs. I walk in, and I’m the expert. They all wanted to know if they were getting it right.”

He might very well have been a journalism or English major. In addition to his books on carriers, Michael produces a steady stream of literature on his profession. He’s the editor for the annual opus O’Connor’s Federal Rules, and he maintains the EDTexweblog, a blog dedicated to practicing law in East Texas.

Oh, and remember, he has three sons: Grayson, Collin and Parker. When we return to The Hub after lunch, we notice the hand-drawn sign next to a set of stairs. It is a set of rules signed by all the powers that be: the boys.

That’s when we notice the room upstairs, and Smith tells us about the hidden doors. I look at our photographer, Jared, and indicate that I’m going to ask him. Jared smiles. He thinks it’s a good idea.

“Michael, would you mind taking a picture in one of the doors?”

He doesn’t even bother to answer. He’s up the stairs and ready for his close-up. Yes, he’s probably excellent at the dad thing, too.

On the drive back to Commerce, Jared and I talk about the day—how we expected to interview an alumnus, a lawyer. Our alumni tend to be pretty fascinating, but Michael Smith is exuberant. It’s like meeting six people at once, and each of them has an incredible passion for what they do: lawyer, community leader, businessman, husband, father, etc. You realize you’re talking to someone who heard what we all hear quite often—“You can’t be good at everything…”—but chose to ignore it.