Edward Calvin Smith Jr. ’65, Distinguished Service Medal Citation

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

When he was too young to know any better, Eddie Smith bought a near-bankrupt boat business and turned it into a successful enterprise.

In the course of learning everything he could about boats, Eddie and a friend visited a museum in Stockholm dedicated to the Vasa, a 17th-century ship built under a tight deadline that didn’t allow it to be tested for seaworthiness before it was launched. It promptly sank, a leadership failure as well as a production fiasco.

As Eddie was explaining this to his friend, people gathered to hear him speak. By the end of his mini-lecture, he was addressing an entire crowd. In a highly specific museum on an island in Sweden, Eddie had created a flash mob.

Matter-of-fact, detail-oriented, a thoughtful problem solver with a compassionate heart, Eddie doesn’t seek out the spotlight. But when he talks, people listen.

The first in his family to go to college, he talked his way into Carolina, even though the admissions officer said, “I know I’m making a mistake,” as he authorized Eddie’s acceptance.

A couple years after graduation, he saw possibilities as he toured the failing Grady-White Boats, and told his dad he saw a different career path than taking over the family mail-order business. As his father was digesting this news, Eddie asked his dad to lend him some money to buy the tenuous boat operation.

A board member of the Rams Club when the University and the Educational Foundation were undergoing turmoil, Eddie was a sage voice of reason and a steady keel in navigating rough waters. He also helped strengthen the financial health of the Rams Club, growing the endowment through his guiding influence not only on the endowment structure but on the Rams Club’s operations and fiscal matters.

Eddie has shared his successful turnaround of Grady-White Boats in many ways. First, he kept the business in Greenville, providing good jobs in the eastern North Carolina county seat that doesn’t have the economic advantages of the Triangle. When the company president retired, the person who emerged with the right package of leadership skills was a woman who had made her career at Grady-White. Eddie not only appointed her president but mentored her in how to deal with customers and employees in the male-dominated boat business who were resistant to working with a woman.

Eddie has witnessed the transformative impact of education on individual lives and what they go on to do locally and in the broader world, and that fuels his philanthropy. The Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation, an organization he co-founded with his late wife, has contributed to a range of fields. At the School of Medicine, the foundation has funded scholarships, professorships, fellowships and clinical research projects. Kenan-Flagler Business School has benefited from Smith family scholarships and professorships, as has the College of Arts & Sciences, most recently with a music scholarship.

The foundation has enabled University Libraries to expand its collections and supported the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Environmental Resource Program at UNC’s Institute for the Environment.

And of course, there is sports. Eddie played football at UNC. Years later, when he served on the steering committee of the Carolina First capital campaign, he learned that well over half the donors who gave to scholarships, professorships or the endowment made their first contribution to UNC athletics. “Athletics is the front porch of UNC,” Eddie says. “It’s what draws alumni back to campus and keeps them connected to the University and contributing.”

His generosity brought about the Eddie Smith Field House, an indoor athletics facility shared by several Olympic sports and the track and football teams that has hosted ACC indoor championships and coaches’ sports camps.

The field at Kenan Stadium is named for the Smiths’ late son, Chris Smith ’87, who lost his battle with ALS.

Eddie’s commitment to Carolina doesn’t end with writing a check. He expects the recipient to have as much buy-in as he conveys with his gift. He follows through to make sure his gift is doing what he anticipated, that any program is doing what it was drawn up to produce, that any facility is living up to its specifications and not getting “rusty.” That testifies to how much he cares about Carolina.

Over the past half century, Eddie has served on numerous boards. In addition to chairing the Educational Foundation board, he has served on the Board of Trustees and the Board of Visitors and is a member of the Chancellor’s Club. In 2001, the Board of Trustees honored Eddie with the William R. Davie Award for his extraordinary service.

If it were up to Eddie, he’d wave off any awards. But he understands that when others see what’s in his heart and his actions, he can create a spark in them, a flash mob of generosity.

The Distinguished Service Medal is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.

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