BRUNSWICK, Maine — Bowdoin College graduate Wil Smith, “a giant of a person” who raised a young daughter alone while attending Bowdoin and then returned after law school to work as a dean, helping the college increase opportunities for people of color, died of colon cancer Sunday in Philadelphia at the age of 46.
Smith’s inspiring story was documented by NBC News, and he appeared on “The Today Show” and “Oprah.” His story was told on National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, and according to Bowdoin College, he is the subject of a film project planned by Sony Pictures.
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, along with other friends, teammates and colleagues from Bowdoin visited Smith in the hospital over the weekend, according to the college.
“Wil was a giant of a person,” Foster said in an email to the Bangor Daily News on Monday. “He was both a friend and a teacher for me. He made a difference in the lives of so many people, and I will carry him with me forever.
According to Bowdoin, Smith was born in Florida, the youngest of 10 children whose mother died on Smith’s 15th birthday.
He attended Florida A&M University for one year, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the first Gulf War.
While serving in the Navy, Smith transferred to Brunswick Naval Air Station. In 1995, he met Bowdoin’s men’s basketball coach Tim Gilbride, who encouraged Smith — then 27 — to apply to the liberal arts college in Brunswick.
Smith was one of only three African-American students in his class, a decade older than most of his classmates, and the first single father in Bowdoin’s history to attend the college, according to U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
On Monday, Gilbride said he remembered Smith’s daughter, Olivia, coloring in the stands or playing in his office while her father ran drills on the basketball court.
“If she was fussy, I’d pick her up,” Gilbride said. “She just immediately became part of the whole process.”
In 2000, Smith carried his daughter with him as he accepted his Bowdoin College diploma.
“The dean called both of our names as they presented us with the diploma,” Smith recalled for NPR’s StoryCorps.
After attending the University of Maine School of Law, Smith became associate dean of multicultural student programs at Bowdoin, where “he was instrumental in helping the college expand access and opportunities for students of color,” according to the college.
Gilbride said Smith not only brought students of color to Bowdoin but was committed to “helping them thrive.”
“He’s a good person,” Gilbride said. “And he sees the good in other people … kids gravitated to him like he was the Pied Piper.”
From 1999 until last summer, Smith worked at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield. He also coached basketball at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland.
Smith later became dean of community and multicultural affairs at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, according to Bowdoin College.
King, who lives near Bowdoin College, said Monday that Smith was “a truly great man.”
“There is a hole in the heart of our community today,” King said. “But while Wil’s loss is felt by countless people, his legacy will be carried on by the thousands who were fortunate enough to know him. Indeed, it is that legacy of caring, of hope, and of understanding which he has given to us and which we will give to future generations along with his story as proof that even the most unlikely of beginnings can yield remarkable outcomes. Today, the world is a lesser place for Wil’s loss, but we are all better for him having been in it.