Sad News Regarding Robert L. Smith

The following message was sent to the Sidwell Friends community on Tuesday, May 25, 2021


Dear Friends,

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that former head of school and trustee Robert Lawrence Smith died peacefully early Monday, May 24, at the age of 96 at his home in Bethesda. Please join me in holding his children, Susan Smith Bastian ’72, Katie Smith Sloan ’73, and Geoff Smith ’77; grandchildren Hannah, Emily, Hunter, Chris ’04, Jennifer ’07, Moria ’11, Benjamin, and Katherine; and the entire extended family in the Light. 

It is impossible to capture the full scope of Bob’s legacy and impact on the Sidwell Friends community. A formidable intellect and profound moral thinker, Bob was a remarkably kind man who cared deeply about young people and Quaker education. He served as head of school from 1965 to 1978 and as trustee from 2000 to 2008. He and his wife, Eliza, who passed away in 2009, were remarkable stewards of the School and shared their sense of responsibility with their children—Katie served as a trustee from 1993 to 2001 and 2008 to 2016, and Geoff is a current trustee. Their extended family includes former parents and trustees Peter and Eleanor Stokes Szanton.

Bob came to Sidwell Friends in 1965 from Columbia University, where he was an assistant dean and before that the assistant registrar. During his tenure as head, he fortified the foundation of Quakerism, civic engagement, and community service. Born in 1924, Bob was a birthright Quaker and graduate of Moorestown Friends School. After matriculating at Harvard University, he soon felt called to enlist in the Army during World War II, serving for three years and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He met his future wife, Eliza, at an American Friends Service Committee work camp in Mexico, and they married in 1948. Eventually, he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from University of California at Berkeley in 1949 and his master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1952. 

Bob was a transformational leader who saw the School through a time of enormous change in the country. He leaned heavily on the humanistic Quaker precepts of racial and gender equality, social justice, and nonviolence when examining practices at the School and addressing gaps. From the beginning, Smith was committed to increasing the enrollment of Black students at Sidwell Friends. He had the honor of presiding at the School’s graduation of the first African American alumni in 1967, and continued to work on broadening both recruitment and financial aid strategies to further this goal. Bob also worked to eliminate the last remnants of quotas for Jewish students and encouraged the election of the School’s first Jewish trustee, James Newmyer ’37.  

“To me, Quaker values of simplicity and silent contemplation, truth and conscience, seem more important now than ever before,” wrote Smith in his book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons In Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense. During his tenure as head, he reinforced the Quaker practice of reflective silence and required time in the academic week for Meeting for Worship for all students. Bob firmly believed that students should be involved in the surrounding DC community. In 1967, he began the Friends Morgan Summer Project, which began as a cultural-enrichment program with the Morgan public elementary school. This led to more collaborations with two DC high schools, a junior high school, and neighboring Phoebe Hearst elementary school. Eventually Bob established the Community Link program, which he described to the Board as “creating extracurricular opportunities to participate in meaningful activities, to serve others, and to attempt to bring reality and learning closer together.”

Bob was beloved by generations of Sidwell Friends faculty, students, parents, and alumni for building a sense of community and purpose. The Robert L. Smith Meeting Room has been dedicated twice—once in 1982 (in the space currently known as the Rosenberg Theater), then again in 2011 (in its current location). His 1998 book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons In Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense, continues to be distributed and available for community members. Last year, the School established the Robert L. Smith Family Scholar Program to honor Smith’s legacy and to inspire ethical leadership in future generations of students.

Following his time as head of school, Bob worked as the staff director of a report on education commissioned by the U.S. Senate, collaborated with the Community Foundation of Greater Washington, and for 10 years served as the executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Private Education in Washington, DC. 

Details of a memorial service are forthcoming. If you would like to send a message to the family or contribute a memory, the School is collecting memories and photos at sidwell.edu/robertlsmith. While this is a moment of loss for our community, let us remember all that we have gained and how our School has benefited from the wisdom and life of Bob Smith. Please join me in holding Bob’s family in the Light.

In peace and gratitude,

Bryan K. Garman
Head of School

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Sad News Regarding Robert L. Smith

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that former head of school and trustee Robert Lawrence Smith died peacefully early Monday, May 24, at the age of 96 at his home in Bethesda.