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Inland Empire Founder is Focus of Documentary.002
Inland Empire Founder is Focus of Documentary.002

San Bernardino native who started nursing school is subject of documentary

Linda J. Smith used her faith in God to start Four-D College, which trains students for careers in the healthcare industry.

Linda J. Smith recently had an experience few people ever have: she saw her life’s vocation played out in a movie.

Smith, 61, is the founder and chief executive officer of Four-D College, a faith-based vocational nursing school in Colton and Victorville. She started the school in Claremont in 1992 with two students.

“A Profile in Courage: Linda J. Smith” is a documentary by independent filmmaker Reginald D. Brown that tells how Smith, a lifetime registered nurse, literally gave up her much-decorated nursing career so she could start the school, which was originally called Four-D Success Academy, from scratch.

The movie is based on “Love Letters to the Lord,” Smith’s autobiography that was published by Zoe Life Publishing in Riverside in 2009.

“The Lord told me to do this,” said Smith, who said she got the idea to start Four-D College after experiencing a vision of Christ in early 1991. “He told me it was my mission to start a nursing school.”

This was a daunting task. Smith had never owned or operated her own business, much less started her own school, but from that point on she was determined to get a nursing school up and running.

“I knew I had to do it no matter how difficult it was,” said Smith, who studied nursing at Chaffey College and earned a teaching credential at Cal Poly Pomona. “It was what I was called on to do, but I had no idea how to do it. I had never put together a business plan or an academic curriculum, and I was walking away from a good career that paid well. My husband thought I was crazy.”

Twenty one years after Smith made her dramatic career change, Four-D College – the letters stand for desire, determination, drive and deliver, the four character elements Smith believes every person needs to succeed – has taught more than 1,500 students, most of whom have gone on to successful nursing careers.

Today, Smith is the only African-American in California to own and operate a fully accredited vocational career college that is licensed to teach vocational nursing and other health care programs.

But the real story might be the journey, not the result.

“I had to learn everything, starting with all of the regulatory agencies you have to deal with and all of the places where you get accredited,” she said. “I had no money. All I had was tenacity, working 84 hours a week. The whole thing was a learning process.”

Smith spent 38 years working as a registered nurse. During her career, she was a consultant, usually on convalescent care, to a dozen hospitals. Being a nurse was “almost hereditary” with her, Smith said.

“I knew from the time I was five years old that I wanted to be a nurse,” said Smith, who was born and raised in San Bernardino and graduated from San Gorgonio High School. “I saw a picture of a nurse, and I knew I was looking at a caring person. That’s what I was, a caring person, so I wanted to be a nurse.”

All of this is dramatized in Brown’s 54-minute documentary, which uses professional actors and archival footage to tell Smith’s story. The film, which Brown hopes to get broadcast on public television and maybe some cable outlets, is scheduled to premiere Dec. 21 at the HourGlass Wine & Art Gallery in Rancho Cucamonga.

Smith, who financed the documentary, has already seen the finished product. She said it’s difficult to describe seeing yourself and much of your life story depicted in a film.

“It was almost an out-of-body experience, and it got a little emotional,” Smith said. “I think the film does a good job of capturing the journey and the difficulties we had getting the school started. It shows all of the challenges we had to overcome.”

Brown attended San Bernardino High School at the same time Smith attended San Gorgonio, and they remained friends, but they lost track of each other after they both graduated in 1970. They did not see each other again for 40 years, when they met at a neighborhood reunion for people who grew up on the west side of San Bernardino.

When Smith told Brown she had dropped her nursing career and was operating a successful nursing school that she had started herself, he was intrigued. After he read “Love Letters to the Lord,” he knew he had subject for a film.

“The book inspired me,” said Brown, who attended Franklin Junior High School in San Bernardino with Smith. “I was a little surprised at how much she had accomplished, and at the same time she stayed close to her roots in San Bernardino.”

Brown knew that Smith had had to battle through much of her childhood, including crime and drug abuse in her own family, which made her story even more compelling for a filmmaker.

“It’s the story of a woman who had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get where she is,” said Brown, who said he spent more than one year working on the film. “There aren’t many women CEO’s in anything, and there aren’t many African-Americans in the healthcare industry, and at that point it becomes an amazing story.

“I think it tells people they can succeed, that they can make something of themselves if they work hard.”

Starla Porter, owner of Zoe Life Publishing, said she got the same feeling when she read Smith’s journals. Porter edited into those journals into “Love Letters to the Lord,” which is being published in separate volumes – the first three have been released – about 200 pages each.

“When I started reading them I couldn’t put them down,” Porter said. “It was the first time I’d heard of her, and I kept wondering what would happen next.”

Porter believes Smith, who has won numerous accolades from the local business community still hasn’t been celebrated enough in the Inland Empire. If nothing else, she brought an accredited nursing school to a region that is sorely lacking in adequate healthcare.

“More people should know Linda’s story and what she has done,” Porter said.

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