William Waugh Smith
Portrait of President William Waugh Smith
In a tribute to Virginia leaders, Lyon G. Tyler, then president of William & Mary, included William Waugh Smith in his 1906 book, Men of Mark in Virginia: Ideals of American Life; a Collection of Biographies of the Leading Men in the State. He wrote, “Dr. Smith is a man of many gifts: He can do anything from writing a college song to founding a college to sing it in. But many of his old pupils insist that his greatest gift is his art of imparting knowledge and inspiring students.”
Smith is most known for his leadership with the Randolph- Macon System and his work to found Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Most people are not aware he led a storied life even before he became an adult.
As a teenager, Smith wrote for The Enquirer, a Richmond-based newspaper for which his father served as editor. When the Civil War broke out, he was exempt from serving due to his young age and because of his association with the newspaper. However, Smith chose to enlist anyway, entering the army in 1862.
During the war, Smith was wounded and left on the field of Gettysburg, where he was captured and carried to the West Building Hospital in Baltimore. Smith ended up being in the last group of soldiers exchanged by General Ulysses S. Grant. After the war, he continued the newspaper business with his father until 1867, when his dad accepted the presidency of Petersburg Female College. That year, Smith began his studies at the University of Virginia, studying Latin. After his father was named a professor at Randolph- Macon College, Smith transferred there. He earned his Master of Arts degree in June 1871.
Upon earning his degree, Smith worked for a time with his uncle, Major Albert G. Smith, in the management of Bethel Military Academy in Fauquier County. By 1878, he had been named a professor of moral and mental philosophy for Randolph-Macon College. He later taught Greek and Latin.
Smith’s leadership skills emerged early. While a professor, he raised $40,000 toward the endowment and led a campaign for better regulation of liquor traffic.
In 1886, he was named president of Randolph-Macon College. During his tenure, he established two feeder academies to the college, one in Bedford City and one in Front Royal.
Throughout it all, he was determined to somehow find a way to provide an education to women that was equal to that offered to men. He was rebuked at R-MC, but eventually the board there agreed to create a separate college for women. Thanks to his efforts and hard work, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College was born.
Smith didn’t plan on being president of R-MWC. Richard Watson Jones was originally selected for that role, but ultimately changed his mind and rejected the offer shortly before he was supposed to begin. It is documented that after “viewing the then un-prepossessing site of the new college and thinking of the various problems connected with the establishing of the institution, [Jones] said the task was beyond him and declined to serve.”
Smith was forced to take on the presidency while also fulfilling his role as head of R-MC. He served both institutions until 1897, when he focused his attention full time on R-MWC. He remained chancellor of the R-M system for the rest of his life.
Smith, beloved by his students, dedicated the remainder of his life to R-MWC, leaving a legacy of excellence and expansion. Before his death, he completed a campaign to increase the endowment, and nearly 20 years after first opening the College’s doors, added seven major buildings and enlarged the campus. He died at age 67.