Former FAMU President Walter L. Smith Remembered for Leadership, Achievements

December 05, 2021
Walter Smith
Former FAMU President Walter L. Smith Remembered for Leadership, Achievements

President Walter L. Smith was president from 1977 to 1985.

Walter L. Smith, Sr. Ph.D., the seventh president of Florida A&M University (FAMU), died in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, November 25, 2021.  The former athlete, scholar, historian, and education leader was 86.

FAMU President Emeritus Smith was also the second president of Roxbury Community College in Boston, Mass.

Notable achievements during the Smith’s eight-year tenure at FAMU include the addition of undergraduate and graduate studies; the expansion of the Black Archives; several new and improved facilities, a boost in sports, the expansion of Bragg Memorial Stadium, and reaccreditation of the several professional education programs.

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Florida A&M University’s seventh President and President Emeritus Walter L. Smith, Ph.D. Dr. Smith left an indelible mark as the University’s leader from 1977 to 1985, developing new academic programs and steering FAMU in the right direction,” said Robinson, FAMU’s 12th President. “We’re thankful for his leadership and celebrate his legacy and join the Smith family, friends and Rattlers around the world in celebrating a life dedicated to service and one well-lived.”

Walter Lee Smith Sr. took an unconventional route on his journey to becoming an international education leader.

Early Years

Born in Tampa on May 13, 1935, Smith grew up in Cairo, Ga., Tallahassee, and Harlem, N.Y. In high school, he was a stellar athlete in track, basketball, and baseball. When he was FAMU president, Smith fondly recalled the days he played atop the rolling hills of Florida A&M College (FAMC), where his parents both worked.

A high-school dropout at the age of 16, Smith spent his young adult years in Harlem, where he found work as a messenger and racks pusher in the New York Garment district before he joined the U.S. Army. He served for 30 months during the Korean War. After his discharge at age 23, Smith enrolled at Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he became president of the student government association.

Smith returned to Tallahassee and earned two degrees from FAMU – the Bachelor of Arts in biology and chemistry, and the Master of Education in administration and supervision.

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 in the development of desegregation plans and compensatory education programs for students and teachers throughout the south. He also helped to 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 was later recruited from the USOE by the National Education Association (NEA) to assist in breaking down racial barriers in teacher organizations in the Southeastern states. He also assisted in the development of collective bargaining concepts for classroom teachers. Smith became the first assistant executive director of The Florida Education Association, and the programs he developed in human relations in Florida received the National Rosena Willis Award from the NEA in 1971 and 1972. For his work in developing strong human relations programs throughout Florida and other states, Smith was awarded a full scholarship by the African American Institute of African Studies to study abroad. Throughout the summer of 1971, he studied at universities in Ghana, Togo, Dahomey (Benin), and Nigeria.

Upon completion of his doctoral coursework at FSU in 1972, Smith was recruited by Hillsborough Community College (HCC) as assistant to the president. He was later promoted to collegiums director, dean and provost at HCC.

Additionally, Smith served as assistant to the dean of FAMU’s School of Education from February 1972 through January 1973. He earned a doctorate in higher education administration from Florida State University in 1974 and was named president of Roxbury College that year.

FAMU’s 7th President

On August 11, 1977, the Florida Board of Regents appointed him FAMU president. His appointment began in September. He was inaugurated as FAMU’s president 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 from seven to 11 schools and colleges. Among those added were the School of Allied Health Science, 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 grown to more than $150 million.

In 2007, the University named the School of Architecture and Engineering Technology building for him and acknowledged his accomplishments while president. Naming the building after a living person required an act of the Florida Legislature, and that body approved the request in 2006. Smith was instrumental in obtaining the funding to design and construct the original building for the School.

Rodner Wright, dean of the renamed School of Architecture and Engineering Technology, said Smith’s dedication to and support of the School continued throughout his presidency. Wright was hired as dean in 1996, after the Smith Administration.

“He always referred to me as ‘his dean’ because he was very proud that the SOA was one of the programs that he had started,” Wright said. “He was also very proud that the renovated building was named for him. Whenever I would see him at university events, in town or out of town, he was sure to acknowledge me.”

International Educational Leadership

Following his term as president, Smith was appointed senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Malawi. During this period in 1985-86, he served as head basketball coach. His team at Chancellor College won the Malawi National Championship.  Smith focused on new higher-education initiatives in Africa before returning to the FAMU campus.

 Smith’s accomplishments and commendations were many to include the following:

  • In 1993, Dr. Smith was asked to return to South Africa; later, he became the founding president of South Africa’s first American-style two-year college.
  •  Smith was a U.S. monitor for the 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela to power as President of the RSA.
  • In 1998, he was inducted into the FAMU Athletics Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to the program.

Later, in 2002, Smith opened the Dr. Walter L. Smith Library in Tampa, his native city. The privately-owned library/museum is dedicated to enhancing the educational development of the people in his boyhood community.

Later, in 2002, Smith opened the Dr. Walter L. Smith Library in Tampa, his native city. The privately-owned library/museum is dedicated to enhancing the educational development of the people in his boyhood community.

He 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.

A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, December 11 at Allen Temple AME Church, 2101 N. Lowe St., Tampa, Florida. FAMU will host a memorial service at 3 p.m. Wednesday, December 15 at the Al Lawson Multipurpose Center, 1800 Wahnish Way, Tallahassee.