LIMA — Lee Smith and Patricia Bell-Saunder, maiden name Lowe, were happy to be reunited when Smith came to town to visit friends and family recently. The pair shares a special bond because Bell-Saunder saved Smith’s life on a long-ago afternoon in 1959. Smith and Bell-Saunder were neighbors, living only two houses apart. The pair, Smith aged 8 and Bell-Saunder aged 5, were buddies that often spent afternoons playing together.
On one of those afternoons the two were playing with a model train when a lime truck came rumbling past.
“I got this dumb idea,” Lee said. “I went outside and hopped onto the back of the truck.”
Smith then slipped underneath the truck, his small body pulled into the wheel well. His grip on the back tailgate was the only thing keeping him from being crushed beneath the wheels. Bell-Saunder saw the whole thing and knew she had to stop the truck.
“The only thing I could think of doing,” she said, “was to run out there and to hold up my hand to get it to stop. I suppose I’m lucky they didn’t run me over.”
The truck did stop, essentially saving Smith’s life. “At any moment, I could have lost my grip,” Smith said. “That would have been it.”
After firemen jacked up the truck and released Smith, they found him, amazingly, unhurt. The wheel did burn through his shirt, but never got to his skin.
“I had put a clean shirt on top of a dirty one,” explained Smith. “So, I had on three shirts at one time.”
Bell-Saunder’s picture and a small paragraph about the incident appeared in the paper, and she remembered the mayor sending her a short note, commending her for her bravery.
A short time later, both Smith’s and Bell-Saunder’s families moved away — Smith’s to Essex and Lowe’s to Belle Center. The two friends lost track of each other until about five years ago when they reconnected through mutual friends and family.
Bell-Saunder’s father bought a bar once they settled in Belle Center. She eventually married, had four children and went through a divorce.
“I lived a pretty wild life for quite a few years,” she said.
Then, she met her current husband, David, and they began to attend church where they recommitted themselves to God. The couple got married and eventually moved back to the Lima area.
Bell-Saunder also went through three years of chemotherapy to treat chronic hepatitis C. While going through this time, Bell-Saunder said she lived in a very bad part of town.
“It’s just where God put me,” she said. “I got to meet drug dealers and feed them and get to know them, and let them know I cared. Two out of the eight I met got clean and stayed clean. That’s really hard for them to do.”
Three years ago, Bell-Saunder and her husband moved into a trailer in Country Estates, where she continues to reach out to those around her.
“They call my porch the Kool-Aid porch,” she said. Her neighbors know they are always welcome on her porch for a glass of iced tea or punch, and that she will listen to them.
Smith, the youngest of four children, started getting into trouble after the family’s move to Essex. While he had a talent for music, playing guitar in several rock bands, he made some poor choices.
He married his current wife, Julie, at the age of 20 and just a year later, found himself in prison for criminal trespassing. However, Smith considers his time in prison to be a blessing in disguise.
“I had an encounter with God when I was in there,” he said. “My mom sent me a Bible, and I just started reading it.”
Let out on shock probation, Smith used his newfound freedom in positive ways. He got involved in Bible studies and even took classes at Fort Wayne Bible College. Still a musician, he changed his repertoire from rock music to Christian music while working as a maintenance man for many years. In 1991, he was asked to be the worship leader for a church in Melbourne, Fla.
In 1998, Smith and his family moved to Lawton, Okla., where he began Malachi Church Ministries, which focuses more on home churches and meeting people where they are at rather than in a traditional church building.
“You invite people into your home,” Smith explained. “You share a meal with them. It’s relational.”
Of course, none of his ministry would have been possible if Bell-Saunder had not saved his life in 1959.
“I think I realized then how quick life can be gone,” said Bell-Saunder. “God had to have me do what I did to save a man of His so he (Smith) could help other people.”
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