Gary L. Smith: MU pillar and quiet force in support of campus beauty

Carol and Gary Smith

Carol and Gary Smith are avid fans and steadfast supporters of the University of Missouri. Gary’s 30-year campus career convinced him that “perception is key,” making him an enthusiastic advocate and supporter of Mizzou Botanic Garden.

Gary L. Smith, an active advocate and supporter of Mizzou Botanic Garden, attributes his 30-year career working with students as the University of Missouri’s director of admissions and as registrar for the youthful energy that has infused his life since his retirement in 2000.

“I got carried away after I retired,” he said of the many boards and committees he has served on and presided over the past 18 years, including several at MU. In addition to his current work and leadership with the MU Retirees Association, Friends of the Library, and the College of Education, he remains an active member in a handful of organizations near and dear to his heart including Boy Scouts of America, Mid-Missouri Alzheimer’s Association and the Boone County Historical Society.

A self-described history buff, Smith also teaches a one-hour freshman honors course at MU that is based on some of Clarence Darrow’s major cases. A satisfying, 25-year-plus endeavor for Smith, students enrolled in “Attorney for the Damned” examine contemporary social issues and current events.

“My real buff is University of Missouri history,” he said, ticking off MU building names and their historical ties to this state’s notable people and places. Ask him anything. His mastery of Mizzou minutia is extensive and he shares it enthusiastically.

Roots and calling

Born in Mankato, Kan., Smith’s father managed a Chevy dealership and served as volunteer fire chief. His mother was the assistant manager of the town’s J.C. Penney’s store.

“They worked all the time, even on the weekends,” Smith said. “In farm towns, farmers came to town on Saturday nights and businesses were open until nine in the evening.

“When I was 12, my dad bought a garage in St. Joseph, Missouri. My mother was the receptionist, did the books and whatever else was needed in support of the business.”

Smith said he “fell into” his work in education after graduating from college, taking a job as a high school teacher in Savannah, Mo.

“I started teaching history and found I liked it. After I became the school principal, I decided if I planned to continue in education, I would need to continue my education,” he said. He enrolled as an education graduate student at MU.

With the encouragement of his advisor Neal Aslin — who eventually served as chairman of MU’s Department of Educational Administration — Smith completed his master’s and doctorate degrees in education in 1965 and 1971, respectively. A few months after successfully defending his dissertation, he began his career in admissions at his alma mater, eventually serving under the direction of six chancellors.

“As each new chancellor came in, things changed,” he said.

Perception matters

“When I came here, this was an ugly campus. After WWII there was a huge influx of students and they built some buildings on the cheap. But things were beginning to change,” Smith said.

“Chancellor Barbara Uehling (1978-1987) hired Jack Robinson as campus planner. He made three key recommendations that changed the face of this campus.”

Robinson recommended eliminating excessive surface parking in favor of aesthetic multi-story parking. He advised that new construction should look like it “belonged” in context with the rest of the campus. And finally, he suggested Uehling protect existing green space and add to it, if possible. All three recommendations were taken seriously and implemented with results that have contributed to the considerable aesthetic appeal of the MU campus.

In 1981, Uehling began advocating for a campus landscape makeover and in 1999, under then-Chancellor Richard Wallace, the MU campus was designated a botanic garden.

Smith couldn’t have been happier.

“The way this campus looks is the first message to taxpayers, parents, students and potential faculty and staff when they visit. Campus beautification sends all the right messages,” Smith said. “Perception is key.”

In support of gardens

Most days, Smith rises before his wife Carol to visit Columbia’s Activity and Recreation Center in order to stay in shape for the busy life he leads. In addition to volunteer work, civic functions and a little golf, weather permitting, Smith’s weekly activities include working in Carol’s flower gardens.

Though he insists that Carol is the mastermind behind the plantings, he holds an obvious appreciation for the beauty of the couple’s gardens.

“Our Japanese maples and blue spruces just sparkle,” he said of some favorites.

In addition to serving as “weeder and water boy” and doing “beetle watch” to detect the arrival and damage by Japanese beetles, Smith is delighted by his discovery that the needle-like leaves of their bald cypress tree makes an excellent winter mulch.

Smith also is very fond of the botanic garden that grew up right outside the window of his Jesse Hall office. He became a financial supporter of MUBG soon after his retirement and has made regular gifts ever since.

“Mizzou Botanic Garden would not be able to fulfill its mission in support of MU without friends like Gary and Carol Smith,” said Pete Millier, director of the garden.. “We are grateful for Gary’s recognition of the important role the gardens play in people’s relationships with the campus and for his endorsement of the work we are doing. It means a lot to me professionally and personally.”

Smith’s long view into the history of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus and a career spent at MU have inspired his certainty in the positive impact MUBG has played in nearly every aspect of campus life.

“The MU campus of today bears little resemblance to the campus I set foot on in the early 1960s,” Smith said. “Mizzou Botanic Garden has made a world of difference and I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to its continued success.”

Story by Jan-Wiese-Fales