Virginia B. Smith, 87, former president of Vassar College, dies
Virginia B. Smith, a Seattle native who became a leader in higher education and president of Vassar College, died Aug. 27 of heart failure at her home in Alamo, Calif. She was 87.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Perhaps you may not have agreed with everything Virginia B. Smith said about higher education.
Her ideas could seem too ambitious; her methods for change rather unorthodox.
But you'd still want her opinion, because she was just that smart.
Ms. Smith, a Seattle native who became a leader in higher education, serving as president of Vassar College from 1977 to 1986, died Aug. 27 of heart failure at her home in Alamo, Calif. She was 87.
Ms. Smith was born on June 24, 1923, the daughter of a boat machinist and the fifth of six children. The family lived in an area now known as Shoreline and struggled to make ends meet, said her sister, Bessie Francis, 94. "We were very, very poor." Their father also worked as a custodian at the former Ronald Elementary, where the children went to school and her mother worked as a cook.
No one in the family had gone to college. But "Ginny," as Ms. Smith was known among close family and friends, showed exceptional academic promise at an early age, Francis said. "She could remember things almost like she had a photographic memory."
Others noticed, too. At 16, Ms. Smith was accepted into the University of Washington. Her mother borrowed money from a great aunt so her youngest daughter could attend, Francis said.
Ms. Smith did not disappoint, earning a master's degree in economics and a law degree from the UW. She continued studying law and economics at Columbia University and practiced as an attorney in labor-management disputes. She returned to Seattle from 1947 to 1952 to teach at what's now Seattle Pacific University and the University of Puget Sound.
As a UW student in the 1940s, she caught the attention of noted educator Clark Kerr, her economics professor.
Kerr — who became chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and then president of the UC system — recruited Ms. Smith to the Bay Area to head the Institute of Industrial Relations, a research group.
This was where Ms. Smith met Florence Oaks, who would become her life partner.
The women were in their 20s when they met in the 1940s and clicked almost instantly, Oaks said, but they kept their relationship secret.
"It wasn't a matter of hiding anything," Oaks said. "But it was a very different time. People weren't really talking about (being gay)."
Kerr, meanwhile, was entrusting Ms. Smith with more and more responsibilities. He appointed her assistant vice president of the UC system during the 1960s — the first woman to get the job, Oaks said. Ms. Smith attended all of the UC's Board of Regents meetings. As a testament to that era, one man, not understanding why she was there, approached her out of curiosity, Oaks said. "I see you at all these meetings," the man said. "Are you Clark's gal Friday?"
In the 1970s, then-President Nixon appointed Ms. Smith to head the newly formed Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, an agency whose mission included making college available to everyone — not just those who could afford it, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
Ms. Smith could relate to that. Her tough-minded approach to administrative spending spoke to her working-class background, colleagues said.
Some of her ideas about education seemed radical at the time.
At Vassar, for instance, she organized an effort to open up the exclusive school to community-college transfers, Callan said. And she was a tireless fundraiser, securing $76 million over the decade she held that position.
"She was always asking: 'What can we do better?' " Callan said.
After she retired from Vassar, Ms. Smith continued working at various nonprofits. She also served as acting president of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., for one year.
But eight years ago, she developed heart problems, and in mid-August, the woman who never seemed to stop going got a terminal diagnosis from the doctors. She died a week later. "Her heart just gave out," Oaks said.
Besides Oaks, and her sister, Ms. Smith is survived by a brother, Frank Smith, of Bonney Lake, along with several nieces and nephews. To honor her wishes, no services will be held.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or email@example.com
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