Kearney Smith grew up on a farm in Rowan County North Carolina. He attended Landis High School in the early 1950s. Then he entered the Marine Corps and served until 1959. After working at several odd jobs, he entered Charlotte College in 1962 and graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
Some of the jobs Kearney held in the early 1960s were commercial artist at Charlotte Textile Engravers, auto driving instructor, and tour bus driver during two summers in Yellowstone National Park. While a student in Charlotte College, Kearney married Catherine Jenrette, a physical education teacher in the Charlotte elementary schools.
The couple then moved to Chapel Hill where Kearney enrolled in the University and earned a Master of Arts degree in English. He then took a teaching post at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina where their first child, Elizabeth, was born.
Kearney taught two years at Furman before enrolling in the graduate school of the University of Georgia at Athens. The couple's second child, Stephen, was born in Athens. While studying at the University for the doctorate, Kearney taught some courses as a graduate assistant. In 1973 Kearney earned a Ph.D. in English. Next the family moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where Kearney taught for several years before the family relocated to the mountains of North Carolina. At Maryland, a new member campus of the North Carolina Community College system, Dr. Smith taught language and liberal arts courses until his retirement in 1997.