DUNEDIN — Elwyn Smith came to Eckerd College with visions of polishing off a stellar academic career.
He had taught theology at prestigious universities and written books. Now as provost, or dean, he would implement a plan to reshape the curriculum. It seemed like a logical next step.
Three months into the job, Dr. Smith found himself at the center of a financial crisis. Enrollment was down. Promised money from Jack Eckerd was slow to arrive.
In November 1972, the college fired 10 professors, most of them tenured. The rest of the community gave the firings a name: the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre."
A few years later, Dr. Smith got the ax, too. The crisis ended his academic career.
Dr. Smith died June 3 of a heart attack. He was 89.
Growing up in Wilmington, Del., and St. Petersburg, the young Dr. Smith found solace in books and the outdoors. Achievement helped him overcome shyness.
"I was a flop at (baseball), scared of girls, and had the social graces of a badger," he wrote in his unpublished memoirs. "But I turned out to have the brains to make it at Harvard."
Armed with a Ph.D. from Harvard and advanced degrees from Yale and Princeton, Dr. Smith taught at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Temple University before coming to what was then Florida Presbyterian College. He started work July 1, 1972, the same day the college changed its name to Eckerd College.
Dr. Smith was the first to hold the title "provost." "It was supposed to be even higher than a dean," said Jim Crane, an art professor, now retired.
That fall, 125 fewer students enrolled than had been projected. The president and board of trustees had to make up for the shortfall. They turned to Dr. Smith to decide who would have to go.
"We were all shocked, but they had to do something to keep the college going," said retired historian Bill Wilbur, 92. "It was that bad."
"The hard part was deciding who to terminate," Smith wrote in his memoirs. "I decided to eliminate the least effective."
Ten professors were fired. In 1975, the president fired Dr. Smith, who had come to symbolize one of the most painful chapters in the college's history.
"I don't think Elwyn realized he had been hired as a hit man," Crane said.
Dr. Smith didn't find work until 1977, when he took an associate pastor's job at Garden Crest United Presbyterian Church. He was paid a fraction of his old salary.
An ordained minister, he visited the sick and the bereaved, and drew on his own suffering to find empathy. He continued that work, visiting shut-ins in recent years for Trinity Presbyterian Church.
"The transformation that the Lord imposed on me in 1975," he wrote on May 24, "enriches the work I do with the dying, the grieving, and the searching."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.