Mary Baldwin University celebrates the life of beloved educator and philanthropist Mary Beth Smyth ’47, who passed away on July 22 at the age of 96.
The devoted alumna was teaching elementary school in Waynesboro, Virginia, when she met her future husband of 65 years, H. Gordon Smyth, in a local eatery. Gordon was starting his career at Dupont Chemical Company and went on to become a senior executive vice president. He and Mary Beth founded an education-based charitable foundation when he retired in the late 1980s.
The couple’s rampant support of MBU’s quest to empower students through education led to Gordon’s election as a Trustee. His and Mary Beth’s expert guidance in the 1990s and early aughts helped university administrators navigate a period of robust growth and transformation — which included the creation of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program.
MBU President Pamela Fox assumed her position in 2003 and met the Smyths two weeks later. She visited the couple’s Wintergreen, Virginia, home and remembers pausing before a beautiful European shawl hanging just inside the doorway.
Fox and Mary Beth paused to discuss its meaning to her, and many years later she gave it to the university, and it now hangs in the president’s office over Fox’s desk. “It reminds me of our abiding partnership that began on that first meeting. Gordon and Mary Beth also made a generous gift to honor the president’s office when the Administration Building at MBU was renovated,” said Fox.
The Smyths were also important financial benefactors. Fox said their generous, wide-ranging gifts have significantly enriched campus life and directly benefited countless students.
On one hand, major contributions created programming like The Smyth Leadership Lecture Series, which brought annual live discussions with trailblazing women leaders such as pioneering broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, tennis great Venus Williams, and others. The Smyth Business Program was established in 1997 to help students connect with and learn from major U.S. business leaders. Public lectures and classroom experiences have since included a long list of elite professionals ranging from former Coca-Cola executives, to leading solar power entrepreneurs, to CEOs at top tech-based marketing firms, and more. The Smyth’s were committed to supporting women in the adult degree program (now MBU Online), especially from Nelson County and Charlottesville.
In 2012 Mary Beth chose to honor Gordon, who’d passed the year before, by donating $1 million to endow a commemorative faculty chair in business administration. Dean of MBU’s College of Business and Professional Studies Joe Sprangel has held the position since its creation.
He said the Smyth Chair has played an instrumental role in helping students learn about “ethical and responsible ways to reduce the impact business has on the planet, while continuing to innovate products and services to meet the needs of a growing world population.” Sprangel said Mary Beth enjoyed checking in with him and often scheduled lunches to discuss new offerings or advances in curriculum.
The Smyths contributed to less high profile causes as well. The couple frequently made thoughtful gifts like bequeathing a trio of 19th century Shakespeare volumes to the theatre program, or helping students buy textbooks during the Great Recession. They also funded annual student scholarships for science and math.
“Gordon and Mary Beth provided generous and wise advice to me on a wide range of subjects, from fundraising, to adult education, and leadership in business education. Together they found a way to give to causes that were vital to the particular context of Mary Baldwin at various points in our ongoing evolution. We met annually to discuss their gifts for the year and the dialogue was always lively and punctuated with interjections of their shared sharp wit,” said Fox. “After Gordon’s passing, Mary Beth and I forged a new level of collaboration in shared dedication to Mary Baldwin. I shall miss her and draw ongoing strength from the exemplar of her vital spirit. Above all else, we honor Mary Beth for her spirit of inquisitiveness and a special ability — sometimes received at a very unexpected moment with a penetrating directness and twinkle of the eye — of conveying a very important point at precisely the right moment.”
Smyth’s family echoed Fox’s sentiments.
“Like her personality, Mary Beth’s philanthropy was quiet, thoughtful, caring and generous,” they wrote in a statement commemorating her life. “She left a lasting impact on all of the organizations she touched with her warm smile, sly wit, and commitment to doing whatever she could to help others.”
Indeed, even in death Mary Beth chose to highlight giving over loss. Her final wishes instructed mourners to celebrate her life by forgoing flowers for donations to the family’s charitable foundation. Honoring Gordon’s wishes, she also made a final bequest to Mary Baldwin that will provide endowment to support several key areas in perpetuity.
“Above all else, we honor Mary Beth for her spirit of inquisitiveness and a special ability of conveying a very important point at precisely the right moment.”
President Pamela Fox