Florida A&M University is known for its loyal fan base, but Walter Smith says he is the proudest Rattler of them all. His grandfather tended the grounds of the school while Smith and his childhood friends played nearby. Later, Smith, a high school dropout, earned his GED and an associate's degree before returning to FAMU to earn his bachelor's. He excelled in science and even served as tutor for NFL Hall of Famer "Bullet" Bob Hayes. In 1977, the school tapped Smith to serve as president, a position he held for seven years. After a career in education that spanned four decades, his focus now is on reaching students of Tampa and, hopefully, steering a few to FAMU. On Saturday, his alma mater was scheduled to play the University of South Florida for only the second time in history. The first was in 2005, the next will be 2015.
According to the local alumni association, the Tampa Bay area has one of the largest concentrations of Rattlers in the nation. They planned a series of celebratory events ending today. The occasion, some say, harkens back to the days when FAMU made annual visits to participate in the Florida Classic until that game was moved to Orlando in 1997.
Smith spoke to the St. Petersburg Times during an interview held at one of two West Tampa homes he converted into the Dr. Walter L. Smith Library. There, the walls are covered with mementos and artifacts, including those from his tenure at the historically black college and his travels to Africa.
He reflected on his lifelong ties to the school. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What initially brought you to FAMU?
I am 76 years old now. I ended up at FAMU 73 years ago when I was a little boy and my grandfather was the maintenance man for the (then-Florida A&M College) farm. I used to ride on the back of the wagon with him and Dr. (Benjamin) L. Perry. Then, he was just B.L. Perry Jr., my childhood friend. He became the sixth president, and I became the seventh.
Why did you decide to get your bachelor's from FAMU?
I told you I went to FAMU when I was 3 years old. There was no place else for me to go. My grandfather would have turned over in his grave.
What was it like to return to your alma mater as president?
I was so excited that I was coming back to my granddaddy's school and my mama's school and daddy's school and my school and to follow my boyhood best friend. All I wanted to do was work hard.
You have a lot of FAMU materials in your library. Why is it so important to preserve them?
We throw away far too many things that our youngsters could learn from. I believe that you can learn from the past. I can't just allow the things that I've done to go to waste.
Alumni planned several FAMU events this weekend in the Tampa Bay area. Why this level of energy?
You're talking about the greatest institution in the state of Florida coming to town. More than that, you're talking about a competition between two outstanding athletic programs. Everyone is excited because there are so many FAMUans in the Tampa Bay area, so it provides an opportunity for people to get together. My point is this: People are excited about the ball game, yes. But I think they're excited about the camaraderie among so many people who are graduates of FAMU.
FAMU's "Marching 100" is a big draw. (The band even marched in the French Bastille Day Celebration in 1989.) But you've seen them so often, do you still get the same thrill?
I wish you'd ask my wife what it's like for her because she goes crazy. When you talk about the Marching 100 and the French Bicentennial, guess who marched right along with them? I did. And if a plume from their caps fell to the ground, I picked it up. I've always had a very great feeling about them. And truthfully there aren't many people who don't feel great about them.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.