Local Avon entrepreneur Sophia Smith dies after ALS battle

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

April 3, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
Updated April 3, 2013 at 11:04 p.m.

Sophia Lisa Orsak Smith and her bloodhound Hank.

Sophia Lisa Orsak Smith and her bloodhound Hank.

After news spread that Avon icon Sophia Lisa Orsak Smith lost a battle with a disease that slowly robbed her of muscle movement Tuesday, her Facebook page was transformed into a garden of yellow roses.

Countless people whose lives she touched through the more than $7 million beauty product business she ran from her home began posting photos of the flower that they say embodies both her proud Texas heritage and tenacious spirit.

Smith was 54, and family members vow to continue lobbying for a cure to ALS, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease, which she first mistook for arthritis in her left arm in 2010.

Part of those efforts include skipping some trips to the barber shop until doctors discover a cure, her husband Randy Smith, of Victoria, said.

"I don't know when or if I ever will cut it. Right now, if you ask me, I never will," he said of what's now a long pony tail. "I am really going to miss her."

He and Smith had whirlwind romance, marrying just four months after their paths crossed while he was working as a manager for Discount Tire.

She graduated from Yoakum High School and went on to study culinary arts at a vocational school in Central Texas. She then traveled the world working as a chef on ships.

Back in the Crossroads, the couple raised three children - Jeff, 26, Zach, 25, and Karen, 24 - in the midst of creating businesses of their own, City Mortgage Group and Avon.

Her daughter Karen Smith, of Victoria, is taking over the Avon enterprise and is thrilled about the flexible career path her mother's blazed for her.

A few weeks ago, Karen Smith traveled to Las Vegas for an Avon event in her mother's place.

"I'm terrified. I have big shoes to fill," her daughter said. "She took no prisoners. She was just so headstrong, the definition of a leader. ... I almost wished that I had a name tag when I was there that said 'Sophia's daughter.'"

Smith recruited about 1,700 people throughout her about 20-year tenure to become Avon sales representatives across the United States.

Candida Contreras, also of Victoria, said she was lucky to be among those recruits. When she was out of an accounting job some 18 years ago, she was skeptical and thought Smith would consider her to be just another number to crunch.

"But she really cared about me and my family," Contreras said. "She wanted all women to be able to support their family and have the freedom to be their own boss."

Anita Pulgar-Laughlin, Avon division sales manager of Chicago, agreed.

"Sophia touched many people. Those who were lucky got to be a part of her life and got a chance to work with her. Those who were fortunate enough got a chance to learn from her," she said.

Tena Herod, an Avon District 1639 sales manager of Victoria, said Smith taught her the ropes when she started two years ago by suggesting how best to introduce products to and increase sales in the community. She said her goal was to empower women.

"She had all these little tips and tricks. She had this personality where you could not ignore her, you could not say no to her. She was a just a tenacious little firecracker," Herod said.

Karisa Miller, of Victoria, said Smith was her first real boss and watched her in action at a kiosk in the Victoria Mall some 14 years ago.

"She could sell half of the products at the kiosk to a person who came to the mall to buy a pair of shoes," Miller said via email.

Contreras said she sold more than 300 yellow rose necklaces in Smith's honor and guessed more may still be available in South Texas. Every penny garnered from the sale of the limited edition Avon jewelry supported ALS research, she said.

"People just came out of the woodwork. ... She never said, 'Oh well, this is my bad luck, and I'm going to have to deal with it.' She got everybody involved because she didn't want someone else to come across this and not know anything about it,'" Contreras said.

Retired Rev. Bill Hassel, who was also diagnosed with ALS nearly six years ago, admired Smith's work to end the disease. A member of Victoria's ALS support group, Hassel said each family reacts differently to its debilitating effects.

"One thing is the 'terminal' designation, and that alone has brought families together and torn them apart. That being said, I have seen much more of the 'bringing together' aspect than any other," he said.

Hassel, who lives in Victoria, is hopeful there will be a cure for ALS, such as stem cell therapy, in his lifetime, encouraged by the fact that today he is receiving medication that helps improve his speech, swallowing and excessive saliva.

Smith's brother Steve Orsak, of Katy, said she was particularly proud of being a fifth-generation Texan. Her mother's side of the family settled in Karnes County in 1855 and is credited with being one of the oldest Polish communities in North America. The family later moved to DeWitt County.

Her father's side of the family, the Orsaks, came to Colorado County in 1866 from what is now Czech Republic.

"I'm the family historian, so she would pester me whenever I found out something new. She'd call me up and say, 'I found (another Orsak)," her brother said, chuckling.

He said her other passion was riding her Harley Davidson motorcycle, which she crashed nearly a decade ago but got back on with encouragement from her husband.

"For a woman her size - and she wasn't very big - to get on a motorcycle and drive from here to Milwaukee, Wis., that takes a certain amount of guts to start with. I think that was indicative of her self control. ... Very few things scared her," he said.



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