Former U.S. District Judge Sidney O. Smith Jr., a long-time and influential member of the Brenau University Board of Trustees, died Saturday, July 14, after an illness. He was 88 years old.
Brenau President Ed Schrader described Smith as the “moral and intellectual compass” for the university and its leaders. Smith was so important to the evolution of Brenau as a doctoral degree-granting institution that trustees voted unanimously two years ago to name its graduate school for him.
Judge Smith was the fourth generation of his family to serve on the leadership board of the institution, and until his death, he remained an active member. Smith or one of his ancestors was involved in every major development at the institution since its inception in 1878. He was the leader in the movement in the early 1990s to acquire full university status for Brenau and was instrumental in the university’s winning approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to become a doctoral degree-granting institution.
Brenau honored him two years ago by naming its graduate school the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School. He lived to see the graduate studies programs break the 1,000-student enrollment mark last fall.
Even through his recent illness, he was a constant figure on the Gainesville campus.
Sidney Oslin Smith Jr. was born and raised in Gainesville, Ga., where in 1878 his great-grandfather, Reconstruction-era Congressman William Pierce Price of Dahlonega, Ga., was a member of the founding board of what is now Brenau. Price’s son-in-law and Smith’s grandfather, William Arthur Charters, was on the board in 1911 when Brenau became a chartered institution of higher learning. In addition, Smith’s father, Sidney O. Smith Sr., the first licensed insurance agent in Georgia, and mother, Isabelle Price Charters Smith, served simultaneously on the Brenau board.
Following service in World War II, Smith graduated cum laude from Harvard, where he played on the football team with future U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy. In 2008, Smith was in the audience when Kennedy’s daughter, Rory, presented a program of her award-winning documentary films in Brenau’s historic Pearce Auditorium. Afterward, Kennedy and Smith engaged in one of the judge’s favorite pastimes, swapping stories.
Smith graduated magna cum laude from the University of Georgia law school. After private law practice and service as a Georgia superior court judge, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, where he served for nine years, including six years as chief judge.
His service to both public and private education began as chairman of the Gainesville Board of Education. In addition to Brenau board membership, which comprised a period as chairman of the board for the private, not-for-profit institution, Smith also served on the state Board of Regents, the governing body for Georgia’s public colleges and universities. Although he offered to step down from the Brenau board to remove possible conflict of interest questions, members of both bodies collectively dissuaded him.
Although Brenau historically is a women’s college, the trustees in the 1970s expanded its charter to offer coeducational programs in Gainesville and on other campuses. In the 1990s, Smith was instrumental in expanding graduate programs and winning approval for Brenau’s university status. Fittingly, moments after the Brenau board voted to name the graduate school after Smith, he made the motion, which the board also approved without dissent, for Brenau to launch its first doctoral degree program. The Doctor of Nursing Practice program seated its first candidates in 2011. The university’s strategic plan envisions enrollment increasing to about 5,000 students by 2025. Most of the growth will occur in graduate programs.
“Judge Smith was a classic southern gentleman and a scholar,” Schrader said. “The judge was perhaps the most thoughtful person I have ever known. He carried on his family’s legacy of leadership at Brenau with integrity, enthusiasm and energy. In many ways, he was our moral and intellectual compass. He will be missed and remembered, but he will never be replaced. It was indeed very rewarding that he was able to see the graduate school carry his name forward, passed on through many new generations of students.”