It was hard to miss Mark Smith at Denison. A former standout basketball player at Princeton, the 6?8?? Smith stood above his charges as dean of men from 1953 to 1971. The irony, though, says Chuck Andrews ’61, is that he never looked down on anyone. “The captain of the football team was no better than the manager. He treated everybody like they were important.” And over the course of his career, he had a huge influence on countless students.
Incoming male students would usually first meet Smith at orientation, where he would lay out all the rules and expectations through his “Manners and Morals” speech—advice that would guide their college careers. Glenn Whitaker ’69 remembers Smith speaking to his class in 1965. “You’ve been told all your lives that you have great potential,” Whitaker recalls Smith saying. “Now, it’s time to perform.” Dave Bingham ’60 remembers another statement: “My name is Dean Mark Smith, and I will eventually meet all of you. Some of you will call me Dean Smith, and some will call me Mark Smith. Those of you who get to know me really well will call me Mark.”
And there were many who would get to that first-name-only level. Dan Berger ’67 would spend time in Smith’s office discussing rock ’n’ roll—a common interest of theirs, and one in which Smith displayed an encyclopedic knowledge. But you didn’t have to trek to his office to find him, says Berger. “He was always around—walking across the quad or in Slayter drinking coffee and meeting with students.” He and Andrews would talk basketball or just shoot the breeze, but there was always time for counsel. Smith cared deeply about values and was an extraordinary mentor. He encouraged students to think about their lives in the context of important questions. A common query: “What are you, a giver or a taker?” “That was really important to him,” says Andrews, noting that he once met a student who was under Smith’s tutelage at Florida’s Eckerd College—where he headed after Denison—who told him he was awarded “The Giver Award” by Smith. It was the kind of advice that felt familial. “He was like a father to all of us,” says Bingham. As Bruce Bailey ’67 put it, “Mark pulled me through some growing-up experiences.”
Mark trusted his students but also held them accountable. “He was tough but fair,” says Henson Jones ’60, “When he realized leadership qualities in someone, he found a way to bring them out. When he realized those qualities, he would soften his stance to let the individual prove himself to get out of a predicament.”
Smith left Denison to serve as a leading figure in the field of student affairs, including as dean of students and professor of psychology at Union College and Eckerd College. He also served as the 1969-1970 president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the leading association for the advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession.
His role as a lifelong mentor to students remained long after Denison, though, and the close bond that existed was typical of an extended family. “Even if you’re 50 years out, you got a problem, you call Mark Smith,” says Andrews. Bingham says they became very close friends, spending countless hours in Smith’s kitchen, where he loved to host visitors as part of what Smith called his “Kitchen Cabinet.” And Smith kept the details of his time at Denison close. Not just, say, a student’s final grade in the psychology courses he taught, but their stories, too. “Even in his 80s,” says Berger, “I’d ask, ‘Do you remember so-and-so?’” Of course, Smith always remembered.
Denison President Adam Weinberg commented on Smith’s indelible imprint on campus. “Mark embodied a long-standing commitment by Denison faculty, staff, and administrators to mentorship. Relationships define Denison, and Mark embodied this spirit,” says Weinberg. “His work continues to bear fruit on our campus today, as many of his former students are now active members of the Denison alumni community and members of the Denison board of trustees.”
Smith died May 16, 2018. Preceded in death by his parents, Harrison and Ann, brothers, Harrison and Peter, and his son, Mark; he is survived by his second wife, Nancy Johnson Smith ’69, his son, Wilson, his daughter, Dana Driscoll, seven granddaughters, and two great-grandchildren.