Former housing chief Newell J. Smith dies at 93

August 10, 2011 By Susannah Brooks

Newell J. Smith, director of University Housing for 41 years and the namesake of a University of Wisconsin–Madison residence hall, passed away on Friday, Aug. 5. He was 93.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 12 at HospiceCare, 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway.

“It’s safe to say that those of us who remain from that era still think about how Newell would approach something,” says Paul Evans, current director of University Housing. “On a personal level, he was a great influence on my career, and certainly on the ways in which I now approach being director.”

No aspect of student housing was too big or small for Smith.

One day he might consult his counterparts at other Big Ten universities; another meeting might address a dining hall controversy over three-tined forks, or “threeks,” as students called them. During his tenure, university enrollment doubled, but residency in University Housing tripled. From the postwar boom through the tumult of the 1960s, Smith’s steady hand led students through five decades of ever-changing campus life.

Originally from Galesville, Smith entered the university in 1936. Though he intended to study civil engineering, the newer social education concepts at work in Tripp Hall intrigued him. The university was the first school in the country to offer student house fellows instead of faculty supervision. Both Tripp and Adams also offered dens for socializing and a system of self-governance. By dividing the halls into “houses,” students could organize larger activities while maintaining a close-knit sense of camaraderie.

Beginning his career in 1941, Smith served under seven university presidents. With the exception of service in World War II, he worked continuously for UW Housing until his retirement in 1983.

The postwar years gave Smith his first major challenge. With few building supplies available as returning veterans and their families streamed onto campus, Smith and his colleagues had to bring in 400 trailers, mostly acquired from manufacturing plants. He converted Truax Field into university housing, managing the area until becoming director of University Housing in 1953.

Thanks to four years in the service, Smith and his colleagues quickly gained the trust of the veterans they served, who had been “plunked down” on campus as suddenly as they had gone to war in the first place.

“Had they put somebody out there that had not been a combat veteran, I think they’d have problems,” said Smith, in a 1983 interview. “But [the veterans] were serious, playing catch-up on the years that they had missed … wanting to get the best education they could.”

Smith’s major responsibilities shifted as the needs of incoming students changed. After working primarily with veterans, he explored plans for more traditional housing. Residence halls expanded to the southeast end of campus with the addition of the Sellery, Ogg and Witte towers; families found community in the new University Apartments, including Eagle Heights.

Given his role in these expansions, it came as no surprise when the first major residence hall to open on campus since 1965 was named in his honor. When the 425-bed Newell J. Smith Hall opened in August 2006, current director Evans noted Smith’s status as both a national expert on student housing and “one of the most influential figures in student life at this university over the past century.” Many building features came from direct student input.

“It was important for Newell to really listen to students. That’s the legacy he helped establish,” says Evans. “We still have the student Residence Halls Advisory Board, in which representatives from all of the residence halls come together to provide feedback and make decisions. We’re stewards of student money, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

Characteristically, Smith’s own assessment of his legacy dismissed personal accomplishments, using an anecdote to demonstrate how he made a large group seem much smaller. He pointed to an off-campus breakfast that brought current and former Housing employees together once a month.

“If I had anything to do with it, the thing that I’m proudest of is the fact that they’re 60 people – from top to bottom,” remarked Smith in 2002. “There are truck drivers, cooks, the director, myself, the assistant directors. It’s an across-the-board group. I guess that says that my personal handling of some things must have been right.”

For Evans, this underscores Smith’s belief that every housing employee plays a role in housing’s ability to serve students. During five decades – and the three decades since Smith’s retirement – this team effort endures.

“We still have the breakfasts,” says Evans. “Last Wednesday of every month.”

Smith’s survivors include his three children: Phil (Holly) Smith, of Stevens Point; Ellen (Rick Whaley) Smith of Milwaukee; and Nancy (David) Dowell, of Portland, Oregon. His spouse, Dorothy, predeceased him after 50 years of marriage. 

Memorials may be made to Friends of the Arboretum, 1207 Seminole Highway, Madison, WI 53711; Capitol Lakes Foundation, 333 W. Main St., Madison, WI 53703; and HospiceCare Inc., 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway, Madison, WI 53711.