Wil Smith, a Bowdoin graduate from the Class of 2000 who stands as one of the most cherished and well-known recent alumni of the College, died at age 46 last Sunday after a protracted battle with colon cancer.
He served as both the director and associate dean of multicultural student programs at Bowdoin, but he is perhaps best known as the 28-year-old undergraduate Navy reservist and varsity basketball player who attended Bowdoin while raising his toddler daughter, Olivia.
The Bowdoin community was notified of Smith’s death by an email from Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster at 10:48 on Sunday morning. At the time of his death, Smith was the dean of community and multicultural affairs at the Berkshire School, an independent preparatory high school in Sheffield, Mass. He also coached the school’s girls’ basketball team.
An aviation electronics technician in the Navy, Smith came to Bowdoin after being transferred from Italy to the Naval Air Station Brunswick (NASB) during the first Gulf War. He met Head Basketball Coach Tim Gilbride in 1995, and Gilbride encouraged Smith to apply to the College.
“In our conversations he started saying, ‘I’m thinking about going to college,’ and I said, ‘Well, would you be interested in considering Bowdoin?’” said Gilbride. “He said, ‘Sure, how do you think it would be?’ and I said, ‘Well, you haven’t been in school for a while, you’d need old transcripts….If that’s something you’re interested in, I’d love to help.’”
Because of his already atypical circumstances, Smith did not tell Bowdoin that he had sole custody of his daughter, Olivia, when he matriculated at the College. When it became clear that he was playing the role of a single parent and full-time student with limited ways to make ends meet, the Bowdoin administration, Smith’s friends and his teammates stepped in to help.
In a video interview of Smith and his daughter, who returned to Bowdoin’s campus this past June, Smith said, “From my time at Bowdoin, and different places I’ve been—where I work now, at Berkshire School, we’ve been fortunate enough to be around some really wonderful, thoughtful people, so it hasn’t just been me. It’s literally been a global village which I think has helped shape Olivia.”
The common refrain among all who knew Smith professionally and personally is that he was a determined man who inspired the best from people.
“Wil was a giant of a person. He was a peer educator, he modeled the way for others in terms of his work ethic, modeled the way regarding how to treat others, modeled the way about service, modeled the way about care and concern,” said Foster, who was the dean of first-year students when Smith was an undergraduate. In fact, Smith was the first student Foster ever met with. “He just is one of the most remarkable people I’ve known. He was a friend to me, a colleague of mine, and he was a teacher of mine.”
Dean of First-Year Students Janet Lohmann, who partnered with Smith on many projects from 2007-2010, noted Smith’s ability to connect with Bowdoin students who were having trouble and his humility about the significant challenges he faced as an undergraduate at the College.
“I think that Wil didn’t always tell his story as a mechanism for learning,” Lohmann said. “I think it certainly came up, and there was a legacy about Wil, but a lot of times it was just like, ‘I’m here for you. My experience got me to some place but that’s not necessarily going to be the same experience for you.’ He was really good at sitting with students and validating their own experiences.”
Pieter Mulder, the head of the Berkshire School echoed this sentiment.
“Wil’s greatest strength might be empowering the voices of students, particularly the students whose voices aren’t always heard,” said Mulder. “He was deeply committed to making sure Berkshire’s ultimate focus was always the students and meeting their needs and aspirations.”
Though few students currently enrolled at Bowdoin knew Smith, first year Hannah Cooke first met him about nine years ago as a middle school student attending public school in Portland. What started as a relationship between a basketball coach and the young Cooke turned into an almost decade-long mentorship that led her from Catherine McAuley High School in Portland, to the Berkshire School and eventually to Bowdoin.
“For the past years, it’s been him really leading the path for me,” said Cooke. “He’s been my guider and advocate.”
As the girls basketball coach at Berkshire, Smith encouraged nothing but the best from his players.
“Something he would do before every game is he would give a very similar speech and he would always talk about how lucky we were,” said Cooke. “He would remind us that there were girls around the world who didn’t have the opportunity to play. He would say, ‘We’re playing for all the girls around the world who don’t have the chance to be where you guys are. On their shoulders we stand.’ He would say that before every single game.”
Cooke said that even after his 2012 diagnosis of colon cancer and ensuing chemotherapy treatments, Smith was dedicated to his team.
“Basketball is what kept him going,” said Cooke. “Even when he was going through chemo, he had this commitment to us. He would never tell you how hard it was, ever. He would wear gloves at practice so he wouldn’t get germs on his hands. He couldn’t stay away from the gym.
“When he was away at chemo, he would call us before every game and we would put him on speaker and he would give us the same speech about the girls on whose shoulders we stand but we wanted to say, ‘We’re standing on your shoulders, too.’ He was so humble—he never made it about him,” she added.
Cooke is now a member of the Bowdoin women’s basketball team.
Another outlet of Smith’s community work was as the associate director of Seeds of Peace, an international leadership program that focuses on bringing together youth living in conflict zones such as Israel and Palestine.
In a statement issued on the Seeds of Peace website, Executive Director Leslie Lewin wrote, “Thank you, Wil, for the countless gifts you have given us all and for reminding us to ‘Do whatever you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are.’ In your honor, we will do just that.”
Smith’s determination was admired by many.
“I don’t think I ever saw him defeated at a sense of obstacle,” said Lohmann. “He always saw a level of possibility in any number of situations.”
Another facet of Smith’s personality that was hard to ignore was his humor.
“He was a larger-than-life sort of person and he was a great mentor who really helped a lot of people in different situations, but I think it’s really important to understand or remember his humor,” said Susan Snell, an administrative assistant in the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs who worked directly with Wil during his time as Bowdoin’s director of multicultural student programs. “His sense of humor was such a big part of him.”
Cooke recalls many humorous episodes involving Smith.
“At the end of the school year, we had this dance called Prize Night. It’s the night before graduation and everyone goes—families can go—and every year, he ended up dancing in the middle of a circle with all the kids around, doing some type of throwback move,” said Cooke.
“It just speaks to him in that the entire community surrounded him, cheering him on.”
Smith’s exuberance was contagious on many levels for those who knew him.
When asked how he will remember Smith, Gilbride said, “As a great person who loved life, who’s inspirational to so many people in so many ways, who worked hard to make people believe in themselves and succeeded in that. So his legacy is how many people that he had contact with who are better for having known him.”
“He had high expectations for everyone but he was always proud and loved you no matter what,” said Cooke. “It’s just this way he had about him. He believed in you and when he believed in you, you believed in you and that was the special thing about him.”
—Sam Chase, Meg Robbins and Nicole Wetsman contributed to this report.