Don Smith: Some Little Giant!

Jim Amidon — Over the course of my career at Wabash College, I’ve been fortunate to meet some legendary Little Giants — men for whom buildings, programs, even streets have been named. I feel blessed to have known men like Bill Hays, Bob Allen, Barney Hollett, and Tom Hays, just to name a few.

There are others — countless hundreds of Wabash men — whose contributions to the college are deep and meaningful, but about whom less is known.

One of those giants was Don Smith, who died last Thursday.

My first memory of Don, I believe, is of his attendance at a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity party in 1983. Don was a committed Fiji alumnus, and his son, Adam, was a year older than me in the Fiji house.

I was saddened to hear that Don lost his courageous fight with cancer at the age of 70. Don was one of those iconic people you imagine will never age and certainly never die. He did, after all, attend a fraternity party while in his late 40s.

Don was fraught with health issues throughout his last decade, though he never used his health — his cancer — as an excuse. In fact, each time I saw Don in the last five or six years, he first asked about my health and how long I had been in remission. Together we joked and laughed about all things urologic.

"It" — what ever "it" means — was almost never about Don Smith; Don’s life was always about Wabash and Wabash people. And in my case, Don taught me how to deal with a health problem… and move on!

Don (with wife Nancy right) was a remarkable person. He did an MBA at the University of Chicago and was a hospital administrator for the early part of his career. He then partnered with a friend to create the Henderson & Smith Corporation, which owns and operates a number of health care facilities primarily in Indiana and specifically Carmel.

Over drinks and smokes at my Wabash graduation party in 1987, Don counseled my parents on how to find a reputable nursing home for my grandmother. It was sage and honest advice, which was helpful for my family.

Honesty, though, is what you always got with Don Smith; he never was afraid to ask the especially hard questions.

He was wealthy, yes, but he never came across that way. To me, Don just seemed to be “one of the guys."

Don could also be stubborn at times, and he was a die-hard, no bull republican. He probably stuck out for his conservative beliefs in these increasingly progressive times, but he always put his money where his mouth was, and supported the things he loved with all his heart and all his treasure — especially Wabash College.

Don was elected to serve on the Wabash Board of Trustees on the weekend of his son Adam’s graduation in 1987 and served the Board until 2003.

Perhaps his biggest contribution to Wabash came when he chaired the Capital Campaign for Independence and Excellence that was started in 1987. That fund-raising drive raised a then-record $42 million, money which bolstered the College’s endowment, and renovated the Fine Arts Center, Lilly Library, and Detchon Center.

It seems almost ironic now that conservative Don Smith would drive the campaign that resulted in stunning new arts facilities, a greatly improved library, and the Detchon Center where the cultures of the world are honored and learned. His exemplary leadership was for the benefit of Wabash and certainly enhanced the College’s commitment to the liberal arts.

More recently, Don was a powerful force behind the construction of the new Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. Not only did he make the largest financial contribution to the project, he convinced dozens of other alumni to join him in the effort.

I saw Don last spring when he was in remission from cancer and attended a Board of Trustees meeting, and again when he returned to campus last fall for the dedication of the Phi Gamma Delta Psi Chapter house.

Even in the final months of his life, Don’s foremost concern was for the men of Wabash. And on the day the new chapter house was dedicated, it was clear by the look on his face and tears in his eyes that his dreams for generations of Fijis had been realized.

Don Smith was Some Little Giant!