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Lessons learned

A recent commitment by Rick Smith ’72 will benefit Arts and Sciences, Maxwell students

Feb 3, 2014 | Article by: Rob Enslin

Photo of Rick and Claire Smith

Claire and Rick Smith


Getting a college acceptance letter is a big moment for anyone, but, for Rick Smith ’72—the oldest of eight kids from western Massachusetts—it’s one he’ll never forget.

“I was getting off the bus, one afternoon in April, and there was my mother, walking down our dirt road,” recalls Smith, speaking by phone from his office in North Carolina. “She had this envelope in her hand and was weeping. I mean, weeping. The first thing I thought was, ‘Okay. Who died?’”

Rick’s mother, Claire, handed him the envelope. “Read this,” he remembers her saying, fighting back the tears. "You’re going to Syracuse!”

Rick was stunned. A high school senior, he had applied to three other institutions (the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Boston University, and Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.), knowing his family probably couldn’t afford them. The prospect of going to SU, where tuition was then $750 a semester, or $3,000 a year with room and board, seemed equally futile.

Until that letter came. 

“I wanted to go away to college in the worst way,” says Rick, who serves as dean of institutional advancement at Sandhills Community College (SCC) in Pinehurst, NC. “My parents had done all they could to help me, financially and in every other way, but it didn’t seem like it was going to be enough. It was tearing them up. It was tearing me up, too."

Claire, 83, admits that the family was strapped for cash.

"When that letter arrived from Syracuse University, I couldn’t wait for Rick to come home [from school]. I just had to open it," she says, calling from the family farm in Pittsfield, Mass. "It was one of the happiest days of my life. I knew how much Rick wanted to go [to SU] and, until that moment, I just couldn't see how it would happen.”

Salvation came in the form of a National Defense Student Loan, an academic scholarship, and a work-study job. Those three awards, along with a full-time summer job at home, would provide Rick with enough money to squeak by as a student.

“I figured I washed about three quarters of a million dishes in the Sadler Dining Center, during my four years at SU," he says. "I had a blast and was grateful for every minute of it.”

Since then, Rick says his career has taken a series of "wonderful turns" that have led him into college fundraising and his all-important work at SCC, where he has been for the past 20 years.

“It has been pretty serendipitous for me,” he says.

Rick attributes much of his success to his liberal arts training at SU. To show his appreciation, he has made a gift through his estate that is creating two scholarships to be shared by The College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The scholarships will support students interested in American history, American literature, and political science.

“The University, in many ways, has shaped the kind of person I’ve become,” says Rick, who majored in American Studies. He cites the names of some of his most beloved professors—William Fleming (art and music history), Donald Meiklejohn (political science), David Owen (English), Michael O. Sawyer (political science), and James Roger Sharp (history)—all of whom remain campus icons and have had a hand in his development. “It was the heady days of the late Sixties, and those professors instilled in me an intellectual curiosity and a passion for ideas that have continued to this day.”  

Rick plans to pursue his passion for writing with a book project about the experiences of his 86-year-old father, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Rick says the project has been inspired by his love of American history (which was ignited at SU) and by a diary his dad kept during the war.

“My father left to join the Navy as boy of 17, and he returned home a grizzled 20-year-old veteran who had spent nearly two years in the South Pacific, including some of the most horrific months of the Second World War," he says. "I believe the experience had a big impact on his life, as it did so for many veterans. That’s what fascinates me and is what I want to write about.”

Shortly after the war, Rick's parents met, married, and started a family.

“Dad became a policeman. My mother stayed at home to raise all of us. Financially, it was a struggle, always a struggle. But it was also a wonderful time and place to grow up," he says.

When Rick left for SU in the fall of 1968, his parents had only three months of college between them. His mother eventually earned an associate’s degree; his father, decades later, earned a master’s. What his parents couldn’t provide financially, they made up for with encouragement and a steadfast belief in the power of education. Thus, more than half of Rick’s siblings went on to attend college. In a few instances, Rick helped foot the bill.

“Rick is a great believer in education,” Claire says. “He’s also an extremely caring family member.”

Claire recalls how Rick not only paid for one of his brothers to study computer science, but also gave him a place to stay.

“Rick wanted him to have a chance,” she says. “He knew how tough it was for his brother to pay for college. It’s tougher now than it probably ever has been.”

Pinehurst, with its world-class golf courses and country clubs, is a far cry from Central New York, where Rick, as a student, plunged headlong into the gritty tumult of the Sixties. He has no shortage of SU stories—like the time Gordon Lightfoot played a sold-out solo show in Setnor Auditorium; or when a virtually unknown James Taylor (“a tall glass of water, with long, stringy hair”) rocked the Jabberwocky café in Kimmel Hall; or when the ever-dapper Professor Sharp invited Rick and his classmates back to his large Victorian home to hang with a few other professors.

“None of us had any decent clothes, and we had to run around to borrow sports jackets and all kinds of stuff,” says Rick, regarding the house-visit.  “It was a warm evening, with all the windows open, the traffic going by, and the glasses clinking. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I think I might want to be a college professor. This is the coolest thing in the world.’”

Photo of 1970 student strike at SU

Rick says the SU student strike of 1970 taught him tolerance and that "life was a complex business."

On the flip side, Rick remembers SU’s student revolt in the spring of 1970, sparked by the Kent State massacre.

“It was a scary time on campus. There were a lot of strong feelings, on both sides, about what had happened [at Kent State] and what we, as a university, should do," he says. "In my case, I had about 30 guys on my [dorm] floor who came from different socio-economic backgrounds and held widely different political views."

Rick says his hallmates ran the gamut, from ROTC cadets to Students for a Democratic Society; from jocks to artists; from SU to SUNY-ESF students.

"Our discussions got heated, especially when students barricaded the entrance to campus, took over the administration building, and marched down to Salina Street," he says, adding that an effigy of President Nixon was burned in front of the Newhouse School. "In a way, the 12th floor of Lawrinson Hall, where I lived, was a microcosm of the University, itself. I learned a lot about tolerance, about really listening to what people said and how they felt. I learned that life was a complex business. That was a great lesson for me at the time."

Matters came to a head, one night during the protests, when a propane tank exploded at a construction site on campus, lighting up the sky, and setting off a small fire.

“It created a boom that rattled old Archbold Stadium, as well as the windows in Sadler Hall, where a bunch of us were meeting with members of the faculty and the administration,” says Rick. “We were scared to death.”

Rick would take all of these experiences with him—to when he earned a master’s degree in public relations at Boston University; to when he got his first “real” job at the United Way in Binghamton, NY; to when he taught journalism at Utica College; to when he founded a media production company in the early '80s; and to everything else that has since followed.

With most of his career in the rearview mirror, Rick is especially proud of his work at SCC, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and has been ranked among the nation’s Top-20 community colleges.

“The Sandhills region of North Carolina is a pretty affluent place, for the most part, but the majority of our students are far from affluent," he says. "They need financial aid. They also deserve access to the best faculty, the best programs, and the best academic support we can provide. Philanthropy is what makes this happen."

Like his parents, Rick believes in the transformative power of education--that an investment in SCC is an investment in the community.

"When we support education, everybody wins," he concludes. "That’s something I began to understand years ago, when I was a student at SU, and it has stayed with me my whole life."


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Contact Information

Rob Enslin
315-443-3403
rmenslin@syr.edu