"What I See Is Progress"

Lt. Col. Matthew Smith '88 recalls old memories on a new campus

"I shouldn't be alive," says Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Smith '88. He's not exaggerating.

A military leader serving almost three decades with the Tennessee Army National Guard, Smith can regale you with harrowing encounters he experienced while defending our nation overseas. One comes from his time in Iraq during the country's first free election in 35 years. He was escorting an election official home the evening before votes were cast when his truck hit a roadside bomb, detonating it. Come sunrise, he resumed his support duties as if nothing had happened.

"People didn't want the election to happen, but I believe in voting and freedom," Smith said. "God, duty, honor, country. That's what matters."

Smith — who dropped by the Steward campus while touring colleges with his oldest son, William — recently returned from his military post as Commander of the Combat Training Center (CTC) Branch of the Joint Multinational Training Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine. There, he assisted the State Department in training the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) in NATO standards.

Born and raised in Richmond's Ginter Park, Smith spent ten years at St. Christopher's School before joining Steward in his sophomore year. This lifelong Spartan made an impression from the start, excelling in theatre, tennis, soccer, basketball, swimming, and dance, eventually winning both the 110 Percent Award and the James Wilson Trainor Award as a senior.

After graduation he went on to attend Elon University, then chose to follow the path of his two older brothers by pursuing military commission straight out of college — "mostly for the health insurance," he said. "I went in as an Infantry Officer and planned on working in finance. I didn't know what I was going to do in the military."

But Smith soon discovered he had both a knack and passion for leading others. The key to good leadership, he says, is something simple he absorbed while enrolled at Steward. "It's all about relationship-building. That's what Paul Cramer taught us. Be prepared, know what you want to accomplish, and follow through. But never forget ultimately you're dealing with people."

The former Head of School left such an impression on him that it was he who Smith sought out first upon returning from deployment to Iraq. "I'm forever indebted to Mr. Cramer," Smith said without hesitation. "I came directly to Steward to thank him for making me the man I am."

Today, Smith can still roll off a litany of Steward faculty, past and present, who shaped him during his formative teenage years. "My three years at Steward changed me forever. Paul Cramer was unbelievably helpful, and Carolyn Brandt did a lot for me as well. Catesby Jones...he'll probably tell you some horror stories about me, but I think I turned out okay," he said, grinning. "Neil Turnage — we still call him 'Coach,' even my sister who never played under him."

Smith now lives with his wife and three sons in Tennessee. Coming home to Richmond, where his parents still live in the same Ginter Park home in which he was raised, is something of a treat. "What I see is progress," he said, looking out over the campus that is nearly unrecognizable compared to the one he remembers from the 1980s. "I'm glad Steward is honoring Mrs. [Helen] Dixon's vision of a small school while still moving forward. It's really stayed true to its core." He describes that core as a close-knit "family" atmosphere among students and staff.

He points to the Bryan Innovation Lab as one example of how Steward has changed for the better. "Visiting colleges with my son this week, I've seen such an emphasis on innovation, emerging technologies, and collaboration," he said. "Honestly I'm a little jealous, even if I don't understand half of what these students are learning."

Though Smith may not travel to Virginia regularly, he has become a bona fide globetrotter over the years. He's held leadership positions while serving with Canada, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. During his latest year-long stint in Ukraine, Smith oversaw more than 300 multinational allies including partners from the UK, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark, collectively training over 4,000 AFU soldiers.

When asked how he was able to lead in an environment in which language, nationality, and culture were often at odds with one another, Smith identified his willingness to rely on others for insight. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world," he joked. "But I learned how to surround myself with the right people who can help me make good decisions that affect hundreds of people."

Sports, he said, were also immensely helpful in bridging divides. "I was a 49 year old running around the soccer field with 20 year olds and still held my own. Ian Coddington and Neil Turnage should be happy to hear that." In addition to playing soccer and tennis, Smith coached those sports overseas as well.

Outside the military, Smith lends his leadership experience to the Boy Scouts. A former Eagle Scout himself, he has been involved with the organization for almost forty years. He's currently the scoutmaster of his son's troop, just as his father was for him.

Giving back to the community makes sense for a man who has thrice commanded within the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. After all, the Tennessee regiment's motto is "I Volunteer, Sir." When asked how he lives by that motto, Smith replied, "I'm a big believer in giving 100% to anything I support, whatever and whomever needs it."

However, devoting his entire adult life to serving in the National Guard has not been easy for Smith, who describes his routine as living a dual life between civilian work and military obligation. "I'm never home. I never get a break." Smith gestures to his son William sitting beside him. "These are special moments, to be able to spend time with my family."

Smith's page in the 1988 edition of The Corinthian — his senior yearbook — captures a young man in search of good times shared with friends, family, and community. His inscription is packed with inside jokes, personal asides to classmates, and fond glimpses of daily life at Steward from over thirty years ago. "Yes, Kate, I'm laughing at you," reads one. "Cary and Bill's battles in pre-cal," reads another. His tongue-in-cheek senior quote pays homage to Garfield the Cat: "I'm easy to get along with as long as everything goes my way."

That sentiment stands in sharp contrast to the man who built his career by rolling with the punches. Smith says he's "in the business of risk-taking." For him, correctly predicting how a decision will play out is the exception, not the rule. Yet it is this very same embrace of the unknown that has fueled his ability to find success in strange, often dangerous environments.

"We live in a country where you can fail at something big and then, ten minutes later, everyone has forgotten. That's one of the few benefits of the 15-minute news cycle," he said. "Give yourself the opportunity to bounce back from defeat, and who knows what you will achieve."

The Steward community looks forward to hearing about what lies ahead for Matthew Smith, as we do for all of our lifelong Spartans. If you are a Steward alumni, no matter where you are or what you're doing, we would love to learn about where life has taken you. Email us at alumni@stewardschool.org or call (804) 565-2306 to catch us up!

 

 

 

 

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