Jonathan C. Smith, Ph.D.: 1959-2021
A champion for diversity. A force for good. A huge teddy bear of hope, laughter and joy even amid difficult conversations.
These are just a few of the ways members of the Saint Louis University family are describing Jonathan C. Smith, Ph.D., SLU’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, who died suddenly on June 19, 2021, at the age of 61 following a recent stroke.
“Dr. Jonathan Smith had a profound impact not only on our campus and well beyond, but also on the individual lives of all those who were blessed to know and love him,” said SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.
“As we mourn and celebrate this extraordinary man, we must also recommit ourselves as One SLU to advancing essential work about which Jonathan was so deeply passionate. We honor his legacy by carrying forward his vision of a more just and equitable world.”
In the days since Dr. Smith’s unexpected passing, there has been an outpouring of grief from all corners of the campus and across social media making clear that the immensity of his impact on the University is equaled only by the vastness of his loss for the SLU community.
“His departure from this Earth is going to leave a massive hole in all of us as individuals, and us as a community and a university,” said Amber Johnson, Ph.D. (A&S ’01, Grad A&S ’03), associate professor of communication and the newly appointed vice provost for diversity and community engagement. “Part of me feels like he’s going to continue this work as an ancestor, and now he doesn’t have any constraints. He has the freedom to show up in ways we have only dreamed of, and that’s comforting.”
Dr. Smith was born on Dec. 17, 1959, in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in Harvey, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. After graduating in the top 10% of his class at Thornton Township High School, he attended Princeton University, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He received a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis where he completed an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English and American literature.
Dr. Smith joined SLU’s faculty in 2002 as an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies. He transitioned to the African American Studies Program in 2011. Over time, he established himself as an accomplished academic and an award-winning author and poet. In his second year of teaching, he began advising graduate students on their dissertations, and in keeping with his gift of lifting others up, Dr. Smith has said one of his proudest moments came when a dissertation he directed took the top national prize in its field.
Jonathan was a visionary. He was the man who brought all of our ideas to life. Now, it’s our turn to give his ideas life and to make sure what he wanted to see happens.”Amber Johnson, Ph.D.
When hundreds of demonstrators gathered on SLU’s campus in October 2014, in response to the recent shooting deaths of Michael Brown and VonDerrit Myers, Jr., Dr. Smith had to be involved. Not just because he had strong connections with the students and activists participating, but because it was in his DNA. His parents, Rev. J.C. Smith and Willie Mae Smith, were part of the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, where his father was arrested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Smith took his classes out to the clock tower, where demonstrators had set up a camp, and invited activists into his classroom. He marshaled his church to bring umbrellas, water and blankets to campus. And while he didn’t participate in official negotiations, he had conversations with students about some of the things that ended up in the Clock Tower Accords, which peacefully resolved the weeklong campus encampment.
The following year, he was tasked with fulfilling those accords when he was chosen to become SLU’s first assistant to the president for diversity and community engagement — a move that was celebrated by colleagues and students across the campus. In 2016, his position was elevated to chief diversity officer, and he was promoted once again in 2017 to vice president for diversity and community engagement.
As SLU’s senior leader for diversity, equity, inclusion and community engagement, Dr. Smith led efforts to make the University more inclusive and welcoming to diverse populations, as well as to increase outreach to the St. Louis community and improve access to a SLU education for young people from the region’s most disadvantaged areas. His many responsibilities included:
- Leading the implementation and advancement of the Clock Tower Accords.
- Co-chairing the President’s Diversity Council and the Bias Incident Response Team.
- Overseeing the Cross Cultural Center, Center for Global Citizenship, Atlas Week Program and annual MLK Tribute.
- Developing and leading training sessions, workshops and speaker series to promote equitable treatment of students, staff, faculty, patients, neighbors and stakeholders.
- Working on community engagement efforts with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Saint Louis Public Schools, the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department and other partners.
- Representing the University on city and regional boards and committees, including the Cortex Innovation Community and the Great Rivers Greenway project.
While the Clock Tower Accords were Dr. Smith’s primary focus during his first year as chief diversity officer, he quickly made the case that the University needed to research its history with slavery as other institutions around the nation had done or were doing. As he was bringing that to the table at SLU, similar discussions were underway in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province.
The University and the Province decided to work together and launched the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation project, with Dr. Smith as its co-director. While the overall aim is to determine appropriate responses to the organizations’ history with slavery, Dr. Smith believed the effort’s focus should be on the lives of enslaved people.
Even as Dr. Smith’s responsibilities grew in scope, involving larger University matters, he maintained a strong presence in African American Studies, frequently teaching the first course most new majors in the program take.
“He was such an ambassador in that role — a pace-setter in many regards,” said Christopher Tinson, Ph.D., who joined the University as the program’s director three years ago. “From day one, I could see how kind and sensitive and patient he was with students. He encouraged them to be curious and rigorous at the same time.”
It was a compassionate approach that Tinson says extended far beyond the classroom.
“Jonathan moved through all levels of the University with a grace that will be unmatched,” Tinson said. “I will remember his generosity of spirit and his willingness to engage people on their own terms and to make them feel that their ideas were always welcomed and valued.”
Johnson agreed, joyfully recalling how Dr. Smith helped secure the first box truck that was transformed into a mobile museum for the Justice Fleet program — just one story in a sea of thousands, Johnson reckoned.
“He would take your idea and say: ‘I see you, I value this idea, and I will put every effort into making it come alive,’ and then it just happens,” Johnson said. “Jonathan was a visionary. He was the man who brought all of our ideas to life. Now, it’s our turn to give his ideas life and to make sure what he wanted to see happens.”
Dr. Smith is survived by his mother; his wife, Rochelle; daughters Lauren, Rachel, Mariah, Brooke and Shannon; four siblings, and countless family members, friends and colleagues. A memorial service to honor his life and legacy will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 30, in Chaifetz Arena. It also will be livestreamed.
Reflections from Dr. Smith’s Staff
Regina Walton supported Dr. Smith as his executive assistant for approximately seven years. She also served on the search committee that recommended him for the special assistant to the president post. When a human resources staff member called Walton to let her know that Dr. Smith wanted to hire her, she cried.
“I remember when he started his position, I left a note on his computer from Jeremiah 29:11 that read: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
“I could always feel the love and support Dr. Smith had for every single person who came through our office. We lost a giant. We lost our best friend. We lost our father. He truly lived out the mission of Saint Louis University.”
Luella Loseille (A&S ’17, Grad ’19) assistant director of diversity and inclusion in the Cross Cultural Center, worked with Dr. Smith in several capacities, from SGA senator to AmeriCorps VISTA to Atlas Week program coordinator. At every step along the way, Dr. Smith was there as a mentor and a friend.
“He always encouraged me. Even when I had my own self-doubts, he never failed to say ‘I’m proud of you.’ He was so excited to see me reach my full potential. That was how influential, how impactful he was for so many people, not just in the SLU community, but in the world in general.
“When you came into the presence of Dr. Smith, you immediately felt assured, supported, and valued. You left a better person after speaking with him.”
Richard Marks, Ed.D., director of the Cross Cultural Center, first met Dr. Smith seven years ago during a meeting of the African American Male Scholars Program. In subsequent encounters, Marks was greeted not just with a handshake but also a firm hug.
“Dr. Smith was a champion for so many people. He gave everybody a voice, but more importantly, he gave underrepresented and marginalized students a larger voice than what we've heard in the past. His willingness to not only listen but to act has been very important.
“He was very wise and gave us wonderful nuggets of knowledge that would carry us forward, not only in that moment but for a lifetime. He was able to impart his wisdom while he was here with us. Now, he is able to watch over all of us.”
In lieu of flowers, Dr. Smith’s family has requested support of the following causes:
The Jonathan C. Smith Scholarship at Saint Louis University: Established in memory of Dr. Jonathan Smith, a fierce advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Saint Louis University, the endowed scholarship will support SLU students who graduated from St. Louis-area high schools who demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. All gifts will be matched by SLU, dollar for dollar.
The Black Rep Theatre: Poetry and the arts were a huge part of Dr. Smith’s scholarship and life. Dr. Smith has long been involved with St. Louis’ Black Rep Theatre, most recently serving as the president of its Board of Directors.