Prior to joining the President’s Office at VHCC, Olivia Denton Smith dry cleaned clothes, baked biscuits, led fitness classes, owned and operated a tanning salon, sold cosmetics, helped in a daycare center, worked for engineers and city leaders, and played a key role in operating her family’s construction company. Many of her jobs overlapped, she said, teaching her the value of hard work – and a few other important life lessons.
“During an economic downturn, it’s hard to sell lipstick,” she said.
Olivia says her long employment history is proof that things don’t always happen exactly as planned. Take her college experience, for example.
Soon after earning the distinction of Class of 1994 Salutatorian at Sullivan East High School, Olivia prepared for four years of academic success at nearby Milligan College. Her parents drove her to campus the first day and then, halfway through lunch, drove her home again.
“I was a rural, sheltered kid,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t even know how to get home. The tears started flowing, and I begged them to take me home.”
And that, she said, is how she became a VHCC student. She continued her studies, too, earning degrees in both Business and Education from VHCC, plus a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from King University.
While earning her degrees, she took a job at Abingdon Cleaners, then the Biscuit Connection, and then a daycare center. Finally, in 1996, she went to work for C.W. Denton Construction, LLC. As office manager for her father’s business, she made sure the bills got paid and supplies got ordered, but also had the opportunity to design spec houses and assist with the commercial end of the business at a time when a whole lot of gas stations and convenience stores were springing up. Business was good – until it wasn’t. When the housing market suffered a setback, Dad broke the news that Olivia might want to start looking for another job.
Never one to waste time, she started selling Mary Kay cosmetics – earning a director’s role and a brand new Chevy Malibu – and bought a tanning salon. She also continued working for the construction company part-time.
But, after a few long years of juggling multiple jobs, she turned in her Mary Kay catalog and sold her tanning business. She took a position with an engineering and consulting firm in Lebanon, then the City of Bristol Virginia and then as manager at South Holston Lake’s Laurel Marina. In January 2016, she became the executive assistant for VHCC President Gene Couch.
But there’s a whole lot more to Olivia’s story than just her work history.
Like Matt, for example. The two were married last September, which explains why Olivia still has the radiant glow of a newlywed. She’s also a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, where she is pursuing an MBA. She still helps out in her father’s business, too, and enjoys time in the kitchen – particularly baking decadent cakes for the long list of nieces and nephews who always seem to be celebrating birthdays.
Olivia grew up in Dentons Valley – a community in Tennessee that was originally named for her ancestors. It’s near Avens Bridge and completely surrounded by Virginia property, but she still was required to attend Sullivan County schools.
“It was so far away that I had to be on the school bus by 6 a.m.,” she said. “I didn’t play sports or anything because it was just too far to go back and forth all the time.”
That was fine with Olivia, though, because she was more interested in dirt bikes, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, and anything else that could get her from point A to point B really quickly. She inherited the passion from her father, who raced motorcycles in his younger days, and fostered her tomboy spirit by teaching her to ride.
“One of my earliest memories is watching my dad ride a motorcycle up a steep hill,” she said. “I was scared and amazed at the same time.”
And she was hooked.
Those who park near the ADM Building are familiar with her jacked-up jeep, But Olivia also has a souped-up Ford Mustang and a Yamaha motorcycle in her collection. She still likes going fast, she said, and the feel of the open road. Sometimes she rides with her brothers, but she’s also perfectly content to ride by herself.
“Riding a motorcycle, particularly around curvy roads, is like dancing and flying at the same time,” she said. “it’s a really graceful feeling. Or sometimes I just put the top down and drive my jeep. When I want to be 100 percent alone, there’s nothing better than cranking up the radio and taking a long ride.”