John Lee Smith, attorney and political leader, was born on May 16, 1894, at Chico, Texas, one of two sons of Henry H. and Margaret Lee Smith. When he was six the family moved to Throckmorton County, where his father engaged in cotton farming. After graduating from high school in 1913 Smith attended Stamford College and West Texas State Teacher's College in Canyon. He taught at Jacksboro Normal College (later North Texas Baptist College) and other Texas schools before enlisting in the army in 1917 and serving in the Seventy-first Field Artillery during World War I. After the Armistice in 1918 Smith briefly studied law and ancient Roman history and jurisprudence in France before returning to the United States. In 1919 he married Ruth Velma Elrod of Throckmorton. Two sons and a daughter were born to them. Smith was elected Throckmorton county judge in 1920 and served in that position until 1926, when he retired to complete his law education. He was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1927, served from 1927 to 1930 as a member of the State Board of Education (see TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY), and began private law practice in 1931. In 1940 Smith was elected to the state Senate as a Democrat from the Abilene (Twenty-fourth) District and that year served as permanent chairman of the Democratic state convention. He was elected lieutenant governor over Senator Harold Beck of Texarkana in 1942 and served two consecutive terms under Governor Coke R. Stevenson. He staunchly opposed the practices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and other labor groups in their attempts to coerce returning veterans to join a union in order to get a job. In 1946 he made an unsuccessful bid for the governor's office against Beauford H. Jester. In 1952, after a visit with Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, he parted with the Democrats over the tidelands issue (see TIDELANDS CONTROVERSY) and openly supported the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. Smith was mentioned prominently for the post of United States attorney for the Northern District of Texas but declined that position. His bid for the post of congressman-at-large in 1952 and another for that of lieutenant governor in 1956 were both unsuccessful.
Throughout his political career Smith maintained Throckmorton as his home. During World War II his son John Lee, Jr., saw action at Saipan and Tinian and won the Bronze Star for his meritorious action in the bloody Okinawa campaign of April 1945. After his defeat in the 1946 primary, Smith and his family moved to Lubbock in 1947. There he opened a private law practice and was later joined in that firm by his younger son, Mark. Smith was a Methodist, a Scottish Rite Mason, and a member of the Knights of Pythias, which he served as grand chancellor in 1932 and ten years later as supreme chancellor of the United States and Canada. He actively participated in the American Legion, and his wife Ruth supported Amvets. His first wife died in 1948, and Smith married Mrs. Mary Clements in 1950. She had two children from a previous marriage. Smith was in delicate health during his last years; he died at St. Mary's Hospital in Lubbock on September 26, 1963, and was buried in Resthaven Memorial Park. His papers are housed in the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.