Walter L. Smith, Sr., Florida A&M University’s Seventh President, Dies At 86 – Tallahassee.com

Byron Dobson  |  Community Editor

Walter L. Smith, Sr., the impassioned seventh president of Florida A&M University, serving in that capacity from 1977 to 1985, died Thursday in Tampa, following an extended illness.

Smith, 86, was known for his skills as a gifted orator and an educational leader who was proud of rising from a humble start as a high-school dropout to becoming a recognized leader in education and a college and university president, first at Roxbury Community College in Boston, Massachusetts, and then Florida A&M.

Though his interest in furthering educational opportunities spanned the globe, he was a committed and fierce supporter of Florida A&M University during and after his presidency.

“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Florida A&M University’s seventh President and President Emeritus Walter L. Smith,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said in a release. “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. 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.”

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Efforts to reach the family for comments were unsuccessful Friday. Smith’s son Walter L. Smith II confirmed his father’s death Thursday night in a social media post.

The Smith presidency at FAMU was marked by the expansion of academic and research programs, improved athletics facilities and international recognition.

During his presidency, FAMU grew from seven to 11 schools and colleges and added a Division of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education, according to the university.

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.

Smith spearheaded the development of the School of Allied Health Sciences, the School of General Studies, the School of Journalism and Graphic Communications, and the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

“Dr. Smith, along with his VP/Academic Affairs Dr. Gertrude Simmons, helped me and my faculty establish the FAMU journalism program well enough that when we sought national accreditation, we were granted it,” Robert Ruggles, who served as dean of the school from 1982 to 2003, wrote on Facebook. “It was the first at a historically black university to achieve such recognition. That was in the spring of 1982.”

In 1984, the university received approval for its first Doctor of Philosophy degree, the Ph.D. in pharmacology, according to the university. Graduate programs in business, architecture and industrials arts, also were established.

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.

“Dr. Smith had many accomplishments but the launching of FAMU’s first major fundraising campaign that raised $10 million and established the university’s endowment was probably his crowning achievement,” Eddie Jackson, retired vice president of university relations, told the Tallahassee Democrat Friday.

Walter L. Smith, Sr.’s earlier yearsSmith was born in Tampa, but grew up in Cairo, Georgia, Tallahassee, and Harlem, New York. N.Y.

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, according to FAMU.

He served for 30 months during the Korean War. After his discharge at age 23, Smith earned his GED and enrolled at Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg, 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 United States Office of Education where he became a program officer in facilitating the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title I of the 1965 Elementary Secondary Education Act, according to FAMU. 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.

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. He 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 the college.

He earned a doctorate in higher education administration from Florida State University in 1974, and that same year was named the second president of Roxbury Community College in Boston.

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On August 11, 1977, the Florida Board of Regents appointed him president of FAMU. He was inaugurated as FAMU’s president on April 22, 1978. 

“The major infrastructure improvements under Dr. Smith’s tenure as FAMU’s president will remain self-evident long into the future,” Leon County Commission Chairman Bill Proctor said in a prepared statement Friday. “Dr. Smith was a superb orator and brilliant storyteller. His spellbinding command of meticulous historic details made him a walking encyclopedia. His books and writings, especially on Florida’s Historic Black Community College system and his work abroad in Africa are timeless contributions worth reviewing.” “

Following his tenure at FAMU, Smith moved on to Africa from 1985-86, where he was appointed senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Malawi. Smith focused on new higher-education initiatives in Africa before returning to the FAMU campus.

In 1993, he was asked to return to South Africa; later, he became the founding president of South Africa’s first American-style two-year college.

In 2007, FAMU named the School of Architecture and Engineering Technology building in his honor. Smith was instrumental in obtaining the funding to design and construct the original building for the school, the university said.

Rodner Wright, who was named dean in 1996, after Smith’s administration, said Smith’s support of the school continued throughout his presidency.

“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.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced later.

Contact Community Editor Byron Dobson at bdobson@tallahassee.com or on Twitter @byrondobson. This report was supplemented by the FAMU Office of Communications.