The end of a legend: Phil Smith retires

This interview was conducted on Wednesday, May 5 with professor emeritus of history John Hyde, a long-time friend of Phil Smith by Benjamin Katz.

How long have you known Phil Smith? When did you first meet him?

Strangely enough, I did not know him in college – I bracketed him. I started in the class of ’52 and then went into the navy during the Korean conflict, and then came back and graduated in ’56. He’s in the class of ’55. We both came together in the same year, I as a member of the faculty and he as a junior member of the admissions office in ’59.

Are there any first impressions you remember having of him?

One of the things that happened in Williamstown in those years, remember it was a much smaller college, and therefore the group of people, both faculty and staff, who come in any one year used to know each other very well. I was a young bachelor, he was a young bachelor and so we would do things together. He was learning his trade and I was learning my trade. He was good company.

Where he began to take hold in his position, and where he and I began working beyond just personal friendship – firstly, I became Dean of freshmen and he, by that time, had become pretty much a regular member of the staff, not just an intern–was when president Sawyer set up what was called the ten-percent program. The ten percent program was a program for the admissions office to admit ten-percent of the incoming freshman class to try and take people whose records were not the usual records that you would accept. This didn’t mean that you were taking weak students, but there would be an unbalance- very strong in certain areas or different kinds of students. By the way, no alumni son or daughter could be a “ten-percenter.” Very few of us knew who they were, and Phil ran it in the admissions office, and I being Dean of freshman knew who they were in the Dean’s office. And so we began working together quite closely with students.

So it’s in the 60’s that Phil begins to take a very active role, and I begin to take a very active role in the college and the administration. The place where Phil really begins to take hold, a place where I admire him greatly, is that he quite early begins to be very interested in the whole question of admission of minorities. He is one of the earliest people in the college to take an active interest in this. One of the things he does is to head an ABC summer program at Darrow school, which was the beginning of ABC and the whole trend of trying to find and to help to qualify minority or disadvantaged students for coming in here. That has been a continuing commitment on his part both in the town and the admissions office. And he has put his money where his mouth is. That is, he has really worked at it.

The other group of people he has always had a soft spot in his heart for are people that come from the same background as he did. He’s a small-town, public school kid from Eastern Massachusetts, an old Yankee family – his mother was a school teacher, his father worked in this little town. And so Phil has always been interested in the kid coming out of those circumstances and those kinds of towns and those kinds of schools. I know that one of the students who he got, I think from Kentucky named his son after Phil because Phil played such an important role in getting him into Williams and helping him to adapt to Williams College.

I have tremendous admiration not only for the principles, but man, that man works at what he is talking about. He has an incredible memory for names and for people. I like to tease him when he makes a mistake because admissions officers are known for always having statistics at their fingertips to challenge whatever you say.

Let me say this about admissions in general: it’s a job I could never imagine doing as a lifetime profession because it means that every year you are going to infuriate three-quarters of the people who apply to this college. You are going to have people condemning you all over the place. To live with that and to be able to deal with that in a balanced way is incredible.

One of the things that Phil did and I think that Fred Copeland his predecessor did and I think they still do – which is a wonderful response – they call in advance the families of alumni sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to tell them why they made decisions. They have to do that and they have had very angry people on the end of the line.

One of the ways that Phil deals with it, and he is a real Yankee, and Yankees work – he is the town gardener. He is a spectacular gardener. He is now preparing the annual plant sale (held Saturday) which raises money for ABC. He was given an award by ABC and they pay great tribute to him and he deserved every bit of it.

How he does it all I’ll never know. I would be exhausted – he could pick up and travel at any time. It’s an incredible schedule and he has tremendous resilience with that and I admire him greatly.

He has been a person that has really helped shape the student body of this college. And when I say that I mean disadvantaged students, minority students, different kinds of students that Phil has taken an active role with. That’s a piece of the admissions structure that he has played an active role in shaping the college.

Can you talk about the effect of his personality separate from an admissions standpoint that has had an affect on an institution like Williams College?

It’s harder to say. The way Williams works the admission office really is at a point where it’s at a vanguard so it admits the students. In that process, the faculty does not play a role- you see it when it’s over. You can call Phil and say, “Is there something I should know about this student,” and sometimes he’ll know and sometimes he won’t.

Where Phil has interacted with the community – let me give you some examples – he always loved to sing, he has a good tenor voice and for all the years that we’ve been here he has been in the choir of the Congregationalist church. He has a particular interest, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, in soccer.

The structure of the college is a committee structure and one of the most important committees, which I chaired for many years, was the committee on academic standing. It deals largely with individual student cases who have fallen below academic standing. Phil represented the admissions office on that for years and years so that we got that input from the point of view of admissions.

He has interacted on campus in a variety of way with many activities, but rather quietly. He used to give a report to the faculty meetings once a year. He wasn’t that much of a public figure on the campus and never tried to be, so that his influence, which was great, was done through a variety of contacts and activities throughout the place. Phil wasn’t all that visible although he was always there.

Are there any embarrassing stories you can tell about Phil that he may not want other people to know about?

In admissions when you see double 800s there’s no problem admitting, but you have to make a lot of guesses in the middle and lower group that you are working with and Phil has a very good eye for the risk – always has, but he’s not perfect. Every once in awhile I would call him up and say “Good Lord, who admitted this person,” and sometimes Phil will say “well, don’t talk to me” and other times he will say “well, I blew that.” That’s why the ten-precent program was fun because there you tracked the risk.

As you could imagine in admissions there are always basic types of disagreements among the staff about decisions. Phil is always loyal to the staff. He always supports the decision even though he may have been deeply opposed to it. I’ve always admired that because he never talks behind their back. And that’s hard to do sometimes when you have been outvoted and that person turns out to be a dud. He tends to be very loyal to the college and that’s hard to do sometimes.

What are some of the lessons you have learned from all your time with Phil Smith?

I’ve learned and I guess he has learned from the different ways in which we evaluate students and our different responses to them and faculty too. It takes you a while if you are going to read record after record after record and see things in it quickly. Phil taught me a lot about what you look for. Like a businessman saying this what you look for in a spreadsheet.

He was a wonderful resource because students trusted him. He became a fund of information, particularly for minority students. In that respect he has served as general advisor to the students, feeding information to the faculty. We used to sit down at the end of the year and I would tell him which students I particularly liked teaching. And I learned a lot from that. I’m sure he had talks like that with a lot of faculty.

One of the things that he didn’t like was students who we termed “went social.” By that I mean just wanted to party, but who had real promise, extracurricularly or academically, and both of us were contemptuous of that as a type.

I told you that he grew up in a small town and his family had lived there since the Puritans, filled with cousins and aunts. Phil could tell endless stories about the family. They were all a bunch of small-town Yankee characters. I loved to get him to tell the stories. His daughter was married here last year and some of the crowd came and you could spot them a long way away. They were clearly coming out of the small town.

What will Williams as an institution lose with the retirement of Phil Smith?

You always lose something – you lose that input. But actually Williams has really lost his real input beginning four or five years ago. As the younger generation comes up, you phase out. So that the impact that Phil had that I’ve been describing probably ended four or five years ago. And although he has had input since then it has not been dominant. I’m confident enough in human nature and of the college that the kind of interests he has will be those of people who follow upon him.

You probably won’t find somebody who could remember as many names, who will garden for you or who will be able to work the hours that Phil put it in- that you will lose. This is a compulsive worker. I think in terms of the kind ways that he has operated. That’s now part of the operation of the college.

To show you what I mean, his predecessor in admissions was a man named Fred Copeland ’35. He was brought here by president Baxter who said, “listen, we have become too dependent on the boarding schools. We need to reach out. We need to get kids out of the small town public high schools.” With the affluence of the college that was beginning at that time you could start doing that.

And so Fred went to work to try to change and shape the student body and try to break these blocs from the boarding schools. And he was successful. When Fred retired we didn’t go back to taking blocks from boarding school. That had now become a way of doing things.

Well the same with Phil Smith. I mean we are now committed and involved and we are not going to fall back from working with disadvantaged kids or minority kids. He’s trained a new generation. The next generation of admission people will have other interests, but they are not going to lose the ones that Phil established.

It’s a kind of permanent commitment. I think of it as I do for myself – as you had a role to play and now it’s someone else’s turn. I tease my colleagues when they call me up. I say “no, I can’t help – it’s your turn. I’ve spent my 40 years doing these things and I’ve loved every minute and now it’s your turn.” I think Phil would say the same thing.

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