And through his faith in Christ, Gordon Smith did much. He lived a long, full life. His achievements were many, as were the lives he touched and shaped. Gordon’s faith provided the foundation to his life, which he honored through service to his church, love of family, concern for others and on development of self. Patricia, his wife of 55 years, says he was not fearful of death, “he was ready,” well-prepared by his strong faith. He died July 26, 2012.
Dr. Gordon A. Smith, the eldest of seven children, was born in Detroit, Mich., in 1933 to parents who taught their children the importance of education for achieving success – a lesson Gordon embraced. His parents and grandparents were also active in church. These priorities – education and church – remained driving forces throughout Gordon’s life.
Singing was another love of Gordon’s, and it led him to Patricia. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Gordon turned his attention toward his education. While attending college in the day and working nights as a nursing assistant, he joined a hospital choir that performed for patients and their families. There he met his future mother-in-law, who introduced Gordon to her daughter while entertaining the singing group at her home. Patricia Ware and Gordon wed in 1957. In 1969 he entered a master’s program at Northern Illinois University, where he later received his doctorate in education. The Smith family, now with four children, settled in Springfield after Gordon accepted a job with the Illinois State Board of Education. He later moved to the Illinois Department of Transportation where he retired in 2005 after 20 years of service.
According to Patricia, Gordon was always busy trying to improve things. “Not just for Afro-Americans but for all people,” she added. In this pursuit, he again turned to church and education as the means to achieve his ends. After settling in Springfield, the family joined Union Baptist Church. Patricia recalled, “Union Baptist had an active youth program and we had active youth that needed a church.”
The entire family would become involved members of Union Baptist Church with Gordon serving as a deacon, choir member and Sunday school teacher. UBC Pastor T. Ray McJunkins felt a special “oneness in faith” with Gordon and believed that everything Gordon did was an extension of his deep religious conviction. Rev. McJunkins considered Gordon to be among his closest advisors and said he was “always willing to fulfill his job [as deacon] in support of the pastor.” In one of his many duties in that role, Gordon drove to Hillsboro every third Sunday for four years to sing, pray with and offer spiritual guidance to prison inmates at Graham Correctional Center. “Gordon was always willing to step up and lead,” said Pastor McJunkins. “He possessed a spirit of courage. He was never afraid of a challenge and always encouraged others to be hopeful.” Pastor McJunkins will remember Gordon as a deeply spiritual man who was also very human. “He loved to laugh, loved life and everyone respected his relationship with God.”
Helping others in the pursuit of educational success was another of Gordon’s passions. He served as an elected trustee of Lincoln Land Community College. In a public statement, the LLCC board remembered Gordon as “a tireless advocate of minority student, staff and faculty recruitment and the importance of addressing the issue of the education gap.” Numerous other community groups, including the Springfield Urban League, the Faith Coalition for the Common Good and SIU School of Medicine, benefited from Gordon’s steady guidance and unwavering belief in helping others.
In the later part of Gordon’s life, he joined forces with Jim Forstal and Allan Woodson, two other accomplished African-American men with deep roots in the community and backgrounds in academia. Their mission was to develop a program that addressed the stark disparities in academic achievement among local African-American males and enlist the support of the Springfield Board of Education to adopt the effort. According to Allan Woodson, they were a good team, each bringing a needed expertise and, “Gordon was the research guy.” Both men agreed that when Gordon Smith committed to something he was all in. Allan, grinning, added, “With Gordon, if you said you were going to be somewhere you’d better be there, you’d best not be late and you’d better be prepared!”
Gordon, Allan and Jim shared an intense desire to help other African-American men and boys succeed. To them, life’s many rewards would be out of reach without a quality education. Gordon in particular remained steadfast in his view that parents, schools and the community must keep expectations high and academic rigor could not be compromised. All three believed that strict discipline and adherence to high standards of conduct were critical to academic success.
When asked how Gordon felt about results of his efforts in these areas, Patricia, Allan, Jim and Pastor McJunkins said he was often “frustrated” with the lack of and pace of progress. But Pastor McJunkins said, “Gordon was always hopeful about everything – he was a man filled with hope.”
– Sheila Stocks-Smith