AN UNLIKELY GRADUATE LIFE’S ODDS AT BOWDOIN
David L. Marcus, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe
BRUNSWICK, Maine-Four years ago, Wil Smith and Bowdoin College eyed each other warily, like strangers at a pickup basketball game.
For Smith, then 27, life had been a series of jump shots, some falling gently through the hoop, some clanging off the rim, some blocked by unexpected obstacles: A mother’s death, a father’s financial woes, a failed marriage, and even a short stint dealing drugs.
Then, while teaching basketball at a summer sports camp in Maine, Smith met a man named Tim Gilbride, basketball coach at tiny Bowdoin, known for its academic excellence, roster of accomplished alumni, and-despite a good-faith effort to recruit students of varying backgrounds-a student body striking in its sameness.
Only months later, Smith found himself walking in the footsteps of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with a Bowdoin scholarship, the backing of an administration that saw him as a symbol of diversity-but, within him, the gathering certainty that he would never get the college degree he had always wanted.
While other students carried Frisbees with their books, Smith, a single father, toted around his 16-month-old daughter, Olivia, who suffered from asthma.
And while classmates seemed to move seamlessly through their first semester, he had fallen so far behind in the reading for a Latin American history class that he was failing. In another class, a professor savaged Smith’s writing for poor organization and a weak thesis. That was especially bruising because Smith didn’t know what “thesis” meant.
Smith, a black man from a poor neighborhood in Florida, was haunted by a nagging sense that he did not, could not, belong. He had lost 17 pounds, and his savings were drying up.
“I’d gotten through life because I was proud and stubborn,” said Smith. “But now I was too proud and too stubborn to ask for help, and it was killing me.”
He kept thinking about going back to the Navy, where he had just finished a seven-year enlistment.
On a Sunday afternoon at the end of the first semester, Smith sat with Betty Trout-Kelly, one of Bowdoin’s highest-ranking black administrators, in her Honda at the edge of the quiet campus. “I can’t make it,” he said.
Losing his way
Wilbur Smith Jr. was the last of 10 boys and girls raised under the iron grip of a mother, Mildred Coleman, who worked as a dietician in a nursing home. Early on, Smith’s father, a longshoreman, moved out. Wil was his mother’s pride and joy, and at age 50, she learned to drive just to see him play baseball, football, and basketball.
But when she died, on his 15th birthday, he stopped caring about school or sports. College coaches sent recruiting letters, but he threw them away. “I lost my drive because a lot of the joy I got from doing well was from seeing my mother looking so proud,” Smith said the other day. He was perched on a sofa, surrounded by a pile of textbooks and a pink bicycle with training wheels. Olivia, now 4 years old, frolicked on the floor with her pet hamster.
In the fall of 1986, with nothing better to do, Smith left Jacksonville, Fla., to attend Florida A&M on a $500 scholarship. Back home for a break, he had a shock. His father, who had been sending him money for rent, was too strapped to help anymore. Before that conversation, Smith said, he had never seen his father cry.
Shattered, he dropped out of A&M and returned to his neighborhood. For about eight months, he says, he sold crack and smoked marijuana to pass the time.
He was slipping further and further. One day the police stopped him for driving with a suspended license. Under the driver’s seat they found an AK-47. Smith insisted that the car belonged to a friend and he didn’t know about the semi-automatic rifle. A sympathetic judge told him to enlist in the military and start anew. The next day, he joined the Navy.
Between deployments in the Caribbean and Middle East, Smith got married. But his wife, who didn’t like the Navy life, left in 1991. Alone at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, where he had been assigned, Smith said, he went into another tailspin. Three times, he said, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. Finally, a highway trooper ordered his car towed away on the spot. Smith spent the night on a park bench in Portland.
Smith said he found his way when he volunteered as a coach for teenagers in Brunswick. That led to a paid job at a summer sports camp, where Smith’s quiet confidence caught the eye of Gilbride, Bowdoin’s basketball coach.
One day, Gilbride called Smith into his office. “Have you thought about Bowdoin?” he asked. Smith shook his head. A brief relationship with a woman in Portland had left him a father sharing the care of an infant daughter; he had never heard of a person his age becoming a Bowdoin student, much less one with a child.
The coach persisted, and while stationed in Italy a few months later, Smith applied to Bowdoin. He scribbled an essay on the back of the application, crossing out words as he went along, and dropped it in the mail without any expectations. Gilbride, though, had warned the admissions office to be on the lookout for an unusual application.
When he was accepted, Smith said, he started to imagine a new kind of life. But his first semester began with disaster. He never received any registration information because he had taken full custody of his daughter and moved, forgetting to leave a forwarding address. Stopping by campus one summer afternoon to say hello, Smith learned that school started the next day; he had missed freshman orientation.
It was a fitting beginning, Smith said, for a time when he could not find his bearings. The Navy had taught him how to fix a computer, but not how to write on one. He could detect hidden submarines, but he didn’t know how to surf the Net. He didn’t even realize that he could live in a dorm, or that assigned books were on reserve at the library for free.
Smith didn’t have a computer, so he went to the computer lab and worked while Olivia slept under his table. Early in the semester, he spent a whole night writing a history paper, and then it disappeared from the screen. The professor asked if he had pushed the save key. “What’s that?’ Smith said.
Another paper came back covered with criticisms. “The professor seemed to be saying, `Are you kidding me? Who let you into this school?’ ” Smith said.
Commuting to campus from his apartment, cooking, washing Oliv ia’s clothes, attending basketball practice, and holding a part-time Navy job, Smith fell hopelessly behind. He couldn’t find a trustworthy babysitter for Olivia, so he carried her to classes or left her with friends from the basketball team.
When he applied to a federal program that helps struggling parents, he was told he could qualify only if he quit college and gave up Bowdoin’s financial aid package.
Smith, who was one of just seven blacks in the freshman class, started to resent many of his white classmates, with their laptop computers and their prep-school educations. They didn’t even know how to do their own laundry, he remembers thinking.
“I was very angry,” said Smith, “and I was asking myself, `Where are the people from my community? Is there a master plan that determines that certain people will do certain jobs, and whites will get the wealth?’ ”
He was crashing. That was when he told Trout-Kelly, Bowdoin’s assistant to the president for multicultural programs, that he wanted out.
Soon after, the dean of students, the dean of residential life, and the director of student aid held an emergency meeting. They found a dorm room for the father and daughter, and put both on meal and medical plans. They called an alumnus who had spoken of helping African-American students, and he agreed to make an anonymous donation: $25,000 to cover day care for Olivia.
That was the turning point. Once he could concentrate on school, Smith plunged into his classes and learned to write with passion. Reading the works of sociologist Emile Durkheim, he said, he came to understand the cycle of poverty he had witnessed in Jacksonville. His confidence back, Smith jumped into class discussions. He had intense talks with Harvard University’s Cornel West and other visiting scholars.
Smith was chosen cocaptain of the basketball team, which had three consecutive winning seasons-highlighted by a nine-game winning streak in 1999, the year Bowdoin reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Last year, Smith received the Bowdoin athletic department’s annual award for leadership. This year, they named it after him.
And everywhere that “Wil the Thrill” went-the cafeteria, study sessions, dinner at professors’ houses-Olivia toddled along. Bowdoin students got used to seeing the father and daughter hugging, or reading Winnie-the-Pooh adventures. Professors didn’t even notice the little girl drawing animals on a chalkboard while a class was embroiled in debate. Coach Gilbride ran practices while holding on to Olivia. When the team played on the road, Olivia stayed with the coach’s wife.
Then there was the day, during a home game against Colby, that a certain little girl interrupted play with a toilet-training crisis. She decided that only her daddy could take her to the potty. “Get that [expletive] girl out of here!” a Colby player snarled. Smith, normally mild-mannered, rushed over, ready to fight. The referee halted play, Smith took his daughter to the bathroom, and the game resumed.
Smith soon found he couldn’t resent Bowdoin students, who were eager to hear about his experiences, his family, his views. And dozens of students-black and white, male and female-volunteered to baby-sit Olivia.
During heart-to-heart talks with Roy Partridge, a professor of Africa studies, Smith’s anger dissipated. “He taught me to listen,” Smith said. “Coming from a black community, you make assumptions about white people. I realized that no matter how rich people were, someone in their family had gone through what I’m going through now. It may have been two, three, or four generations removed, but they struggled, too.”
Susan Bell, a sociology professor, echoes others on the faculty when she says that Smith injects a real-world voice in the classroom. Not long ago, an economics professor was talking about the economic boom created by the Reagan years. Smith couldn’t hold his tongue. “We lost a whole generation of fathers in the 1980s!” he said, telling the class about old friends who keep getting jailed for selling drugs or falling behind in child-support payments, and then jailed again when they can’t make a decent wage.
Later, he explained: “The professors study the war on drugs, they read about it and theorize about it, but they weren’t there.” Smith definitely was there.
Inspired in part by Smith, this fall Bowdoin will start offering five full scholarships to disadvantaged students. It will also admit 10 Boston students, most of them minorities, based on their leadership-not grades or test scores.
While studying for his final exams last week, Smith took time to think about life after college. Law school is tempting, but so is teaching. He has applied for a new position at Bowdoin, counseling minority students. Although he wants to return to Jacksonville to work with teenagers someday, he worries about raising a young girl there.
At Saturday’s commencement, Wilbur Smith Jr. will be easy to spot. In the sea of caps and gowns, he will be the only 31-year-old amid the 21-year-olds. He will be one of just two black men among the 430 graduates of the Class of 2000. And as he strides up to receive his bachelor’s degree in sociology, he will be accompanied by Olivia, his inseparable roommate and soulmate.
Caption: 1. Wil Smith often toted his daughter, Olivia, now 4, to his college classes. GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/WENDY MAEDA 2. Wil Smith, who had come close to quitting college, studying for his final exams as a senior at Bowdoin’s student center complex. GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/WENDY MAEDA