FAMU Holds Memorial Service for Former President Walter L. Smith Sr.

December 17, 2021
Drum Major Guard of Honor
FAMU Holds Memorial Service for Former President Walter L. Smith Sr.

Former Florida A&M University (FAMU) President Walter L. Smith Sr.,
Ph.D.,was remembered for his role of not only “saving FAMU” but expanding its academic and athletic offerings and setting the stage for the University’s later success.

Smith, the seventh president of FAMU and a president emeritus, died in Tampa on Thursday, November 25, 2021. The former athlete, scholar, historian, and education leader was also remembered for his remarkable educational journey, from a GED to a Ph.D., from  a high school dropout at 16 to  a University president.

In video remarks, FAMU alumnus U.S. Rep. Al Lawson Jr. credited Smith with expanding the University’s academic offerings from seven schools and colleges to 11 and promoting the return of the FAMU College of Law.  

“He wanted to save FAMU.  He did an outstanding job while he was there. All alumni are truly grateful for what he did for the University,” said Lawson, who served in the Florida Legislature before he was elected to Congress. “He’s the reason why I filed the law school bill 15 years in a row.”

Smith’s educational journey led from a GED to a Ph.D. at Florida State University.  He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at FAMU.

In 1965, Smith was recruited by the U.S. Office of Education (USOE), where he became a program officer in facilitating the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title I of the 1965 Elementary Secondary Education Act. He worked specifically with school districts in the eight Southeastern states to develop desegregation plans and compensatory education programs for students and teachers throughout the south. He also helped  develop desegregation and graduate education training centers for African American administrators at select universities. This included the University of Miami and the Desegregation Center at FAMU under the direction of the late Dr. James Beck.

Smith served as the second president of Roxbury Community College in Boston, Mass, before assuming leadership of FAMU.

On August 11, 1977, the Florida Board of Regents appointed him FAMU’s president and was inaugurated  on April 22, 1978.  Smith, who served until 1985, is recognized for being a valiant advocate for his alma mater.

While Smith was president of FAMU, the University grew, adding the School of Allied Health Sciences, School of General Studies, the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication, the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and a Division of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education. In 1984, the University was granted the authority to offer its first Doctor of Philosophy degree, the Ph.D. in pharmacology.

The ‘80s also saw the expansion of the Gaither Athletic Center, which included the construction of a new Women’s Athletic Complex equipped with a track, an Olympic pool, men’s and women’s weight training rooms, and softball and baseball fields. Bragg Memorial Stadium was renovated and expanded to accommodate 25,000 spectators, and a modern field house was erected.

Additionally, new facilities were constructed to house the Schools of Allied Health Sciences, Architecture, Business and Industry and Nursing. Construction and renovation projects amounted to more than $34 million. As the University prepared to observe 100 years of its existence, the Smith administration launched the Centennial Celebration Fund to establish a University Endowment, which has an investment value of more than $150 million.  

Two former presidents paid tribute to their predecessor during the service at the Lawson Multipurpose Center Wednesday.

“Dr. Walter Smith knew the task when he took over. He fought hard for equal footing for Florida A&M University,” said former FAMU President Fred Gainous, Ph.D. “We don’t have to wonder why he pursued the things he did. He did it to offer better education opportunities. It wasn’t about him. It was about Florida A&M University and the students who would come here.”

Henry Lewis, Ph.D., who served as interim FAMU president following the departure of Frederick S. Humphries in 2001, lauded Smith’s efforts to elevate FAMU to its Ph.D. conferring status, battling with the Board of Regents and the push for an engineering school, which was initially supposed to be a FAMU College of Engineering rather than a joint FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

“Walter Smith was a man ahead of his time,” said Lewis, who also served as dean of the College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences. “For a university to be recognized as a true university in the sense that it offers the highest degree in the land, it must offer the Ph.D. Dr. Smith knew that. He knew that FAMU had to reach that pinnacle of offering the highest degree in the land in order to have that respectability.”

Smith’s role as an educational leader took him overseas to Malawi and South Africa, where he in 1993, he became the founding president of South Africa’s first American-style two-year college. Memorial Service program moderator Dale Clark, who served as Student Government Association President during Smith’s tenure, recalled conversations with then-President Nelson Mandela discussing Smith’s contributions in that country.

FAMU President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., understood Dr. Smith’s impact during a visit to South Africa soon after Robinson joined FAMU in 1997 and traveled to Durban, South Africa, as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) research grant. His hosts were already familiar with Smith’s work. But Smith’s greatest contribution was his accomplishments during his eight years as FAMU president.

“Dr. Smith was brilliant enough to know that if we were going to survive in the world as it was forming FAMU needed to be engaged in higher education in every manner possible,” said Robinson, who praised Smith for creating new programs, which were crucial steppingstones in terms of research funding and address health issues that disparately affect African Americans.

FAMU’s push to become one of the top 100 public universities in America would have been impossible without the schools and colleges and other programs created under Smith’s leadership, Robinson said.

 “He was a visionary, and I feel honored to have met him. He left an indelible mark,” Robinson told the gathering. “His life was dedicated to higher education, a life that was well lived.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Barbara W. Smith; five children, U.S. Army Colonel John L. Smith, Attorney Salesia V. Smith-Gordon, Andre Smith, Walter L. Smith II and Tracy Abrams Butler; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.