After an epic career — president of Florida A&M University, the creator of higher education programs in South Africa and Malawi — Walter Smith came home to Tampa.
But he wasn’t done making change.
Smith bought a home behind his parents’ in West Tampa, where he thought he might create a library with his art and artifacts. Then one day, he heard some middle school students talking when they got off the bus.
“The youngsters were horsing around, when one playfully threatened another,” the Tampa Tribune reported in October of 2004.
It gave Smith an idea.
“Wouldn’t it have been nice if she could have said, ‘Meet me back at the library in an hour, let’s study together,’” he said then.
So he built that place — The Walter Smith Library at 905 N Albany Ave. It opened in 2004.
Smith had a reason for wanting everyone to get an education.
It changed his life.
He died Nov. 25 of multiple health issues, including hypotension. He was 86.
Tampa was home for the majority of Smith’s life, but he had to leave at a young age before making his way back.
As a young student, he was smart, said Smith’s second wife, Jeraldine Williams, a lawyer and the past publisher of The Capital Outlook, a newspaper that serves the Black community in Tallahassee.
“He could finish his work early, and that caused him to get in trouble.”
Smith’s mother sent him to his Grandma Suzie in Cairo, Ga., where he played basketball and stayed in line at school.
At 16, he had to leave again, this time because members of the local Ku Klux Klan wanted revenge after Smith got into a fight with a co-worker, who was white.
His grandfather packed a shoe box with fried chicken, pound cake and a Coke and sent him on the Greyhound bus to Harlem to live with his Aunt Alberta, Williams wrote in an obituary for Smith.
In New York, Smith worked in the garment district and paid for night school, but dropped out to join the Army and serve in the Korean War. There, he was unable to become an officer because he didn’t have a high school education.
Smith knew he had to go back to school.
When he came home to Tampa, he got his GED and enrolled in Gibbs Junior College for Negro students in St. Petersburg, where he was soon elected the first student body president. He studied while working full-time as an X-ray technician at Clara Frye Hospital.
In 1960, Smith was one of a handful of students to take part in the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
“We are pleading to adults to help us prepare for our future by helping us obtain good citizenship, a well-rounded education, quality employment and a wholesome leisure pastime,” he told the St. Petersburg Times then. “In return we shall do our best to protect, lead and guide the America of tomorrow.”
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Smith was about to make good on that promise.
Smith devoted the rest of his life to education, and not just his own. Twelve years after getting his master’s degree at FAMU, he returned as the historically Black university’s seventh president in 1977.
“That was during the era when historically Black colleges were under fire,” Williams said. “Because finally the country had moved to integration of previously all white institutions, the talk was ‘Why do we need the Black ones?’”
Smith’s accomplishments include fighting off efforts to merge FAMU with the University of Florida, bringing in a $10 million endowment, expanding athletic programs and adding new degree programs, including a doctorate of philosophy and a Ph.D. in pharmacology.
Meanwhile, he and Williams raised their children, and despite his frequent travels, daughter Salesia Smith-Gordon remembers her dad’s presence, whether it was enlisting them in chores or teaching her how to pour concrete. He was out of town once in her middle school years, and just before she got on stage for a Kiwanis Club oratory competition, Smith-Gordon looked at the back of the room.
There was her dad.
News clips from 1977 to 1985 show all that Smith was up against, from the Florida legislature to FAMU students, faculty, staff and alumni. Stories after his death cast his work in a different light.
“He wanted to save FAMU,” said U.S. Rep. Al Lawson Jr. at a memorial service.
“Walter Smith was a man ahead of his time,” said Henry Lewis, an interim FAMU president, at the same service.
Former Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a longtime friend, sat in the same pew as Smith at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“You can’t write the history of Florida A&M without including all of Walter Smith’s accomplishments and achievements and his goal to make it its very best,” she said.
Around the world and back again
After FAMU, Smith kept learning and promoting learning. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Malawi, where he created a higher education program for educators, and he later established Funda Community College in Soweto, South Africa. Smith wrote The Magnificent Twelve about Florida’s 12 Black junior colleges.
And he never missed a chance to talk about FAMU, said his third wife, Barbara Smith. If the two were out to eat and Smith spotted young people, he’d say hello, ask them where they were from, what grade they were in.
“Most of all he asked, ‘Well, what do you want to be when you finish high school?’”
Smith’s legacy is written, literally, in stone.
At FAMU, the School of Architecture and Engineering Technology’s building is named after him. There’s a reading room named in honor of his family at the Robert Saunders Library in Tampa. And Smith’s four children are working now to figure out the future, if there is one, of The Walter Smith Library and their father’s vast archives and art collection.
They’re guided by something their dad often asked them: “Who did you help today?”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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