Irreplaceable: Sidney O. Smith Jr., 1927-2012

Sidney O. Smith, Jr.When Sidney O. Smith Jr. rose to eulogize his friend John Jacobs last November, the former federal judge matter-of-factly stated that he always thought it would have been the other way around. Smith at that time already had been battling cancer, and he knew his days were numbered. The candor, delivered with a characteristic hint of mischievous wit, however, was vintage Smith – honest, open, to the point.

Smith, who was 88, lost his battle July 14, and Brenau University lost what President Ed Schrader characterized as the “moral and intellectual compass” of the institution. Jacobs served longer on the university Board of Trustees, but Smith has been genetically and kinetically entwined with Brenau like no other. He appeared in a photograph of the 1928 Bubbles year book as the 5-year-old “mascot” of the Women’s College. He represented the fourth generation of his family to serve on the governing board. That legacy includes a great grandfather, who was present at the creation in 1878. More than merely an exercise in noblesse oblige, however, Smith’s service helped point Brenau to true north, charting its course from solely a Women’s College to a broader enterprise with multiple campuses and coeducational evening and weekend programs, to a full university, to a doctoral degree-granting institution. Built to accommodate a majority of its future students in graduate programs, the university houses those upper level programs appropriately in the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School. Despite his illness, Smith remained active on the board. At the spring meeting, he cast a vote in support of expanding doctoral programs, starting with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree track, to be located at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville.Sidney O. Smith, Jr. circa 1942

The Harvard- and University of Georgia-educated World War II veteran practiced law in his hometown, then served as a Superior Court judge in Hall County. Although Smith had played football at Harvard with a man who would become a U.S. senator and the nation’s attorney general, Robert Kennedy, it was Kennedy’s sometimes political nemesis, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who elevated Smith to the federal bench. His nine years as U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia coincided with one of the most significant eras of U.S. jurisprudence. Smith’s decisions included controversial orders to racially desegregate Georgia prisons and schools, among many others. He once remarked that people he thought of as lifelong acquaintances in ultra-conservative Hall County suddenly failed to recognize him on the street.

The desegregation cases aside, perhaps Smith’s greatest accomplishment was in his leadership in higher education after he left the bench. In addition to Brenau board membership, he also once served simultaneously on the governing body of the University of Georgia and other state-supported colleges and universities. It is more than passingly curious that, during Smith’s terms, the state and private institutions both flourished. “Our state’s educational system,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, a fellow Gainesville resident, “would not be where it is today without Judge Smith’s distinguished service.”

The same could be said about Smith’s impact on Brenau, said Schrader. “He will be missed and remembered, but he will never be replaced.”

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