Alumnus, active Rotary Club member, gives back through scholarship

By Lauren Winton

Published: Nov 11, 2020 10:12:00 AM

Bill and Susan Smith Bill and Susan Smith

Stepping off the train at Auburn, Alabama for the first time, 17-year-old Bill Smith, ’67 bachelor’s and ’69 master’s in electrical engineering, had never been to Alabama before much less the campus. Luckily, there to help him find his way was a friendly face of the Auburn Family.

“I stepped off the train and I had no idea where I was going. I know I looked totally lost,” Smith said. “This nice woman in a car stops and says, ‘Can I help you?’ I told her where I needed to go, I just didn’t know where it was, nor how to get there. She was very kind and gave me a ride.”

As Smith recalled, every encounter he had that week was equally as cordial. His roommate was kind enough to go to the train station and help him load his traveling trunk in his truck to help Smith move into their room. And then when he went to orientation in the amphitheater, Smith knew he had come to the right campus.

“They started playing ‘War Eagle.’ I didn’t know the song at the time. But there was something so incredible about the atmosphere and the people. I knew this was where I wanted to stay for my degree,” Smith said.

Before that life-changing week, Smith had made up his mind to transfer out of Auburn and into Georgia Tech as soon as he could. But after spending time with the Auburn Family and being on campus, he changed his mind.

“I lived in Atlanta for three years when in grammar school, and I was a huge Georgia Tech fan. That was during the time when Bobby Dodd was coach and Tech had a strong football team,” Smith said. “The only thing I knew about Auburn was that they played Georgia Tech in football every year.”

Smith grew up in a large family. He was the oldest of seven kids. So he knew that when it was time to go to college, he would need the support of scholarships. He filled out an application for a Naval ROTC scholarship, naming Georgia Tech as his No. 1 choice, Notre Dame as his second choice and the University of Virginia as his third choice. “Throwing a dart at a dart board, I picked Auburn University as my last choice,” Smith said.  

He went through his first year without a hitch. It was at the end of the year when he had his annual military physical that things changed drastically. “As it turns out, I am diabetic,” Smith said. “I had no idea. So, I lost my scholarship.”

Smith returned home for the summer and started working to save money. He saved up enough to get through another two quarters his second year. He continued to work through school and eventually got a job as a draftsman on a NASA research project in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He earned enough money to finish his junior and senior year, working part time. Smith received his bachelor’s degree in June of 1967.

“As I approached graduation, I called my dad and told him I had some really nice job offers with attractive salaries, however, none of them were in work areas that were appealing to me. So, I opted for graduate school, and as an engineer himself, my dad was thrilled,” Smith said.

He applied and got into the master’s program for electrical engineering. It was during his graduate studies that he met his wife, Susan.

“One day as I was walking in Dunstan Hall on my way to the main engineering office, I saw this red-headed girl walking the other way. She had a sorority pin that I recognized, and I called one of my buddies in her sorority to get her name. She started laughing and said she knew who she was – Susan, Susan Smith,” Smith said.

Not related, the two Smiths struck up a relationship. Two months later, they decided to get married. A year later, they were married.

“Instead of walking at graduation, I got married,” Smith said.

After graduating with his master’s in 1969, Smith got a job with Texas Instruments as a radar design engineer. He loved it. But when his father unexpectedly passed away in March 1970, Smith knew he needed to move back closer to his Virginia home since his mother had five of his siblings still living at home. He and Susan moved to Atlanta, where he enrolled in an MBA program at Georgia State University. Susan went to work with Atlanta Federal and later finished her bachelor’s in education at Georgia State.

“During my first year at Georgia State, I found out that some Southern Company representatives were interviewing for technical/IT positions. I thought I would go visit with the representatives who were there,” Smith said. “Turns out there was mutual interest and they called me back after my visit and gave me a job offer.”

Southern Company paid for the rest of Smith’s MBA coursework taking evening classes. He was hired by Southern Company Services as an analyst. He was there for seven years before he moved into a related role at Georgia Power. He ultimately worked for 38 years in the Southern Company System.

While at Georgia Power, Smith became involved with one of the local Rotary Clubs. Since then, and more than thirty years later, Smith has been Rotarian of the Year three times. He has also served as the president of his local chapter.

“Rotary keeps me busy,” Smith said. “In Georgia, we have a program where foreign university students come to study for a year. I have been very involved with that, and Susan and I have made some spectacular connections through the program. We’ve been to three weddings abroad, all from friendships we have made with the students through Rotary.”

In addition to his time as president of the Rotary Club, Smith served as the president of the Atlanta Auburn Club in 1988.

“Auburn has always been special to me,” Smith said. “We moved to Atlanta in 1970, and we have had season football tickets ever since. We also go down for other events, from time to time.”

As supporters of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, the Smiths have given to the college’s discretionary funds. They also established the William J. Smith Endowed Scholarship.

“I know what it was like to work my way through school,” Smith said. “Hopefully our scholarship support will help those students who, without it, would not be able to attend college.”

Media Contact: Lauren Winton, lmw0090@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519

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