TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Friday, Aug 22, 2014
Commentary

Walter Smith: A story of persistence and opportunity


Published:

The article in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin caught my eye. Dr. Walter Smith was receiving an honorary high school diploma from Blake High School because, despite his many academic and professional accomplishments, he was a high school dropout.

Hard to believe!

Dr. Smith is the former president of Florida A & M University, a man with distinguished educational credentials and an impressive resume of achievements ranging from presidencies of academic institutions to spearheading the first American-style community college in South Africa. He is lauded as one of the top African-American educational leaders in the country. Today, he and his wife, Barbara, reside in West Tampa, in the family home where his mother encouraged him, to no avail, to regularly attend school.

Now, at age 78, he laughs as he recalls his antics as a youngster, remembering that playing hooky from Dunbar Elementary landed him in trouble because it caused him to fail first grade.

His mother thought a change of scenery would improve his grades and sent him to live with his grandmother in Cairo, Ga. The new environment worked, and by the time he got to high school, he was doing well both academically and athletically.

But then a fight with a white man changed everything.

The year was 1951, and his grandmother feared for his safety after the incident. In the Deep South, Smith recalls, "If you knocked a white man out, you could expect to be killed."

Without finishing high school, he was shipped to New York City to live with an aunt, and found employment in the garment district.

Here the story could have taken a predictable route. Without a high school diploma, options were limited then as they are today. Walter Smith could have easily spent the rest of his working days bouncing from one low-paying job to another.

But his story is one of persistence and opportunity.

It started when he tried to join the Army so he could play a part in the Korean War - his brother was being held as a POW. But the Army didn't accept high school dropouts. He kept going back to the recruitment office, until one day he spied a black officer behind a desk who allowed him to take the Army General Aptitude Test. He passed easily and was given an opportunity to serve.

Out of the military in 1956, he went back to the garment district in New York to work and enrolled in classes at night to get his GED (high school equivalency). But after working all day, he kept falling asleep in class and had to abandon his studies.

One day he saw a sign for the Manhattan Medical Assistant School. He thought, "Now there's an opportunity." He took the test and scored so well he was admitted right away.

After completing the coursework he easily found work at a hospital as a lab technician. At age 22, he felt pretty good about his job and future.

Except that he still didn't have his high school diploma.

Back home in Tampa, his mother expected him to go to college. But that goal seemed out of reach. Home for Christmas, she told him about Gibbs High School, newly expanded to a Junior College for African- Americans. He could come back to Tampa and attend. At first he doubted that such a school even existed, and it took a car trip over the bridge to Pinellas County to visit the school to convince him that the Junior College was real. As he and his mother toured the building, they met the president, Dr. John W. Rembert.

Dr. Rembert set high standards for the newly formed Junior College, the only opportunity available for African-Americans to pursue college in the Tampa Bay area. He saw promise in the young man who wanted to attend but still lacked the necessary high school credentials.

"Go back home, enroll in a GED class," said Dr. Rembert, "and we'll make something out of you."

So back to New York he went to work at the City Transit Authority as the junior bacteriologist, surely an unusual job for a transit agency! But it allowed him to attend night school, where finally, at the age of 23, he received his GED.

Other educational degrees soon followed. An associate of arts from Gibbs, bachelors and masters from FAMU and, finally, a Ph.D. from Florida State University.

His education laid the foundation for an exceptional life filled with leadership and accomplishments - one that has shaped the lives of literally thousands of young people.

His impact continues even in retirement.

Years ago, Dr. Smith started a neighborhood library adjacent to his West Tampa home. Children of all ages come to study and read. Understandably, he sees reading and education as the foundation for a solid future. He encourages the youngsters, just as he was encouraged along the way.

Where some of today's youth might see obstacles and dead-ends, Dr. Smith sees plenty of opportunities - and resources. He tells young people, "Be disciplined, determined and dedicated."

The arc of Walter Smith's life traveled through the decades of stifling segregation with limitations at every turn. His persistence, a trait I see in all good leaders, produced extraordinary results.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her email is pam@pamiorio.com.

Comments