Monday, June 30, 2014

William C. Smith: Friend of the Library

As you enter the workspace for acquisitions and cataloging staff on the second floor of the main building of Jackson Library, you will find a portrait as well as a plaque noting the dedication of the room "to the memory of William Cunningham Smith" ... "in the service of this college from 1900 to 1943." He's described as a "scholar, inspiring teacher, lover of books, and friend of the library." But Smith's contributions to the development of the school we now know as UNCG were even greater than the plaque describes.

Smith with his daughter Margaret, 1905
Born in Greensboro on April 19, 1871, Smith was the son of Samuel Cunningham Smith and Margaret Ella Cunningham Smith. His father actually served as the City of Greensboro's first superintendent of schools. Smith graduated with Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees from UNC Chapel Hill in 1896, where he also was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. After graduation, he worked for four years at UNC as an instructor of history as well as English and pedagogy.

In 1907, he took on additional administrative duties as dean of the faculty, a role in which he served as the school's second in command, filling in for President Julius Foust during Foust's absences. With the college's administrative reorganization in 1922, Smith transitioned to the role of Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In this role, he advocated for broadening the school's curriculum beyond the existing "normal" (teaching) coursework and lead the push towards college accreditation. After resigning as dean in 1934, Smith continued serving as head of the English Department until 1938. He continued teaching English courses until two weeks prior to his death in 1943.

In addition to his teaching and administrative responsibilities, Smith served as chairman of the campus chapel and conducted services at a time when chapel attendance was a daily requirement for students. He also became well known in Greensboro as the teacher of a large men's Bible study class at the First Presbyterian Church, where his uncle had served for many years as pastor. He also traveled across the state as a lecturer on Biblical literature.

Smith was a frequent visitor to the college library, where he was known for his desire to read books from across all disciplines. His personal book collection was described as "one of the largest and finest libraries in the state." E.J. Forney, head of the college's commercial department and Smith's neighbor, noted that when Smith procured a new book, the lights "more often than not, were shining out of that study window at 2 o'clock in the morning." Smith was known for voraciously reading in preparation for each and every lecture he gave. The campus library and his own personal library served as the resources for his intense studies.

In spite of his service as a teacher and lecturer, most who worked with Smith described him as quite shy. Upon his death in 1943, a former colleague described Smith in a letter to the Greensboro Daily News: "Quietly, unostentatiously and modestly, Dr. Smith went about his business of living and of training, through lecture and through example, and influencing others in how to live. The lives of those who came in contact with him, including not only the friends and neighbors privileged to know him here and in his profession, but the endless line of students who knew and loved him as a teacher, constitute a more enduring memorial than pens and marble shafts can ever provide."

The portrait of Smith was presented to the University Libraries in May 1971 by Smith's family. At the time, the space in which the portrait resides served as a reading room, open for student use. Now, however, Smith -- a man known for frequent use of the library's resources as well as the development of his own personal library collection -- keeps watch over all of the materials moving in and out of UNCG's library.

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