Smith—Robert Lawrence Smith, 96, on May 24, 2021, peacefully, at home in Bethesda, Md. Born in 1924, Bob was a birthright Quaker and graduate of Moorestown Friends School in New Jersey. After matriculating at Harvard University, he soon felt called to enlist in the Army during World War II, serving for three years and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He met his future wife, Eliza, at an American Friends Service Committee workcamp in Mexico, and they married in 1948. Eventually, he earned a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley in 1949 and a master’s in English from Columbia University in 1952.
Bob came to Sidwell Friends School in 1965 from Columbia University, where he was an assistant dean and before that the assistant registrar. He served as Sidwell’s head of school from 1965 to 1978 and as trustee from 2000 to 2008. During his tenure as head, he fortified the foundation of Quakerism, civic engagement, and community service. He and Eliza, who passed away in 2009, were remarkable stewards of the school and shared their sense of responsibility with their children—Katie served as a trustee from 1993 to 2001 and 2008 to 2016, and Geoff is a current trustee.
Bob was a transformational leader who saw the school through a time of enormous change in the country. When examining practices and addressing gaps at the school, he tried to follow the principles of racial and gender equality, social justice, and nonviolence. From the beginning, Bob was committed to increasing the enrollment of Black students at Sidwell Friends. He had the honor of presiding at the school’s graduation of the first African American alumni in 1967, and continued to work on broadening both recruitment and financial aid strategies to further this goal. Bob also worked to eliminate the last remnants of quotas for Jewish students and encouraged the election of the school’s first Jewish trustee.
During his tenure as head, he reinforced the Quaker practice of reflective silence and required time during the academic week for meeting for worship for all students. Bob firmly believed that students should be involved in the surrounding D.C. community. In 1967, he began the Friends Morgan Summer Project, which began as a cultural enrichment program with the Morgan public elementary school. This led to more collaborations with other D.C. schools. Eventually Bob established the Community Link program, which he described to the Board as “creating extracurricular opportunities to participate in meaningful activities, to serve others, and to attempt to bring reality and learning closer together.”
Bob was beloved by generations of Sidwell Friends faculty, students, parents, and alumni for building a sense of community and purpose. The Robert L. Smith Meeting Room has been dedicated twice—once in 1982 (in the space currently known as the Rosenberg Theater), then again in 2011 (in its current location). His 1998 book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense, continues to be distributed and available for Sidwell community members. Last year, the school established the Robert L. Smith Family Scholar Program to honor his legacy and to inspire ethical leadership in future generations of students.
Following his time as head of school, Bob worked as the staff director of a report on education commissioned by the U.S. Senate, collaborated with the Community Foundation of Greater Washington, and for ten years served as the executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Private Education in Washington, D.C.
Bob is survived by three children, Susan Smith Bastian, Katie Smith Sloan, and Geoff Smith; and six grandchildren.