My Memories of Eddie Smith

Eddie was esteemed as a great teacher by his pupils, his friends, and God. Not a bad public, that.

Eddie Smith
Eddie Smith (photo: Courtesy Photo)

Edward C. (Eddie) Smith was the first tenured African American professor at American University — yet he did not have a college degree. He became a Catholic in 1975 and helped found the Heights School. He died at the age of 80 on March 11 in Washington, D.C. He was a third-generation Washingtonian.

In 1952, with his blind mother, he visited Arlington National Cemetery. He remembered that as the defining event of his life. He was inspired with a sense of duty and sacrifice for country, fell in love with history, and vowed to read a book a week for the rest of his life — a promise he kept. He was an autodidact. In 1960 he graduated near the top of the first-ever desegregated class from Western High School (now Duke Ellington High School).

Lacking resources to attend college, young Edward Smith began working in the mail room of the White House for President Lyndon Johnson during the War on Poverty. His talent for writing became evident at this time and paved the way for his later success.

I first met Eddie Smith almost 60 years ago. My brother Pat was acting director of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a sort of domestic Peace Corps. “There’s a young man in my office you should meet,” he told me. “He is a Black Washingtonian with an unusual intellectual appetite.”

To call this young man unusual was a great understatement. Everything about him was distinct, beginning with his physical appearance with his long wavy hair. But it was his vitality, his huge enthusiasm, that really set him apart. Dorothy Day once wrote a book with this provocative title: The Duty of Delight. Delight was not a duty for Eddie. It was automatic, like his explosive laughter.

Back in 1965, a few of us members of Opus Dei were promoting The Heights, a study center that offered high-school boys mentoring and professional seminars. Eddie became part of the mentoring staff.

Joe Schiebel, a volunteer at the center and a history professor at Georgetown University, persuaded Eddie, who had gone straight to work after graduating from Western High School, to enroll in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Eddie tried it for a while and befriended Carroll Quigley, Georgetown’s legendary professor of Development of Civilization, but his fellow students were 10 years younger and light years less mature intellectually. Eddie decided that, for him, college was a waste of time and that he didn’t need the degree. Evidently, the folks at American University didn’t think so either when years later they made him a tenured professor of American Studies — the first African American tenured professor.

The upshot of Eddie bowing out of Georgetown was that he was available for full-time service at The Heights, which was turning into an independent school for boys, grades 3 through 12. Eddie took over the teaching of history during the school’s early years. For him, history was not a subject to be taught but an experience that he lived and loved — a cavalcade of fascinating personalities like St. Thomas More, or Peter the Great, or Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were very much alive to him.

It was at this time that he embraced Catholicism, as would Mary Jefferson, his wife-to-be. That was, to be sure, a matter of God’s grace, but it was also the deep and rich history of Catholicism that struck a chord in him. Smith married Mary Magdalene Jefferson on Aug. 23, 1969, and they would have six children.

There were quite a few outstanding teachers at the school in its early years, but if you were to ask any of the men who were students there 50 years ago who it was they remember most vividly, they would probably tell you that it was Eddie. Most young teachers find it a challenge to control a classroom of 30 young barbarians. All Eddie had to do was clear his throat, and there would be a hushed silence. Those boys had never seen anyone like him. He was, as the Italians say, fuori serie — one of a kind, fiercely independent, his own man.

Smith taught U.S. Civil War history at American University for 45 years and founded the university’s Civil War Institute. He was beloved by students and faculty alike. He became a speechwriter in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. He also was a speechwriter for Clarence Thomas before he became a Supreme Court justice.

In 1997, in collaboration with two Catholic Study Centers, he founded the Youth Leadership Foundation. Since 1997, the organization has mentored more than 4,000 students. His essays have appeared in The Yale Review, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Lincoln Review, The Washington Times and numerous other publications. He was an art history lecturer and a study tour leader for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, the National Park Service and the Historical Society of Washington. He also served as a visiting classics tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and a lecturer for the James Madison Memorial Foundation.

We shall miss him, but we will never forget him. He was unique. Requiescat in pace.

Opus Dei Father Malcolm Kennedy lives at Reston Study Center in Reston, Virginia. He is one of the founders of the Heights School and was a chaplain for 30 years. He currently preaches days and evenings of recollections at Reston Study Center, and preaches retreats at Longlea Conference Center in Culpepper County, Virginia.