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Ed Smith: A Legacy of Leadership

“Achievers, then and now, seek no exemptions nor excuses. They continue to accomplish because they work hard, sacrifice, and persevere, driven by the desire to excel.” - Professor Ed Smith

This piece serves to commemorate the life and work of Professor Ed Smith- a stalwart leader in the community and a co-founder of the Youth Leadership Foundation, who passed away on Mar 11, 2023.


I’ll never forget the first time I met Professor Smith, sitting at a restaurant in Dupont Circle, which he frequently referred to as “his office.” We sat outside on a sunny day, with topics of history, politics, and youth programs whizzing through the air. He had a glimmer in his eye and passion in his heart. While initially a man I’d only heard about, he is someone I came to know, respect, and admire, as did all those who came to know him.

Life and Work

There’s no question that Professor Smith left his mark on the community and built a lasting legacy. A native Washingtonian, he was a man of upstanding moral character and deep faith, who was passionate about American History (particularly the Civil War), youth education, the future of our country, and those responsible for leading future generations. Professor Smith was deeply embedded in local education efforts and sought to preserve and impart history- passions he developed in his youth, with inspiration from his mother. He did this by becoming the first African American tenured professor at American University, co-founding and teaching at the The Heights School, leading local history tours of the city, writing many published essays, working as a speech writer during the Carter administration, and becoming one of the co-founders of the TAP and PALS programs, which eventually became known as the Youth Leadership Foundation. In addition to the many roles he fulfilled, Professor Smith's was a devoted husband and father to his late wife of of over 50 years, and 6 children, to whom he imparted his love for education. These are just some of Professor Smith’s accomplishments, which in totality, could fill a book.

Imparting Wisdom, Virtue, and Radical Availability

More important than any of his accolades, Professor Smith’s life is a testament of his character, paying homage to the fact that he was a man of virtue. He was always striving to become the best version of himself, and desired that for others. His charisma, care for others, love of country and God, are some of the values that informed his life that had a direct impact on the lives of many. Professor Smith maintained a spirit of “radical availability” to anyone who crossed his path- this philosophy followed him wherever he went. He never missed an opportunity to see the person in front of him- to pour his energy into helping others be men and women of character. He used his unique gifts and talents to give back to the world and embraced a radical call to serve others wholeheartedly.

What shaped his desire to live this radical availability and life of virtue was his involvement and love for Opus Dei, a Catholic organization dedicated to the sanctity that lies in doing daily ordinary tasks. Professor Smith’s life was a reflection of this. He took ordinary moments and transformed them into great moments. There are living breathing examples of this all over the DMV and the country, through the myriad of lives he touched and mentored. Professor Smith took hundreds of students, young people, and co-workers under his wing during his years of teaching and widespread professional pursuits. His heart for education and forming hearts and minds is where his passion for mentorship began. This deep love for others, particularly young people, coupled with his drive for excellence, joy, and a spirit of service, is what eventually gave rise to the Youth Leadership Foundation (YLF).

Character Development as a Means of Flourishing

After launching intentional efforts to mentor African American school aged youth in the 1970’s, Professor Smith’s efforts, in conjunction with the Opus Dei community, became a dream-turned-reality with the development of the TAP and PALS programs. Professor Smith saw character development as a way to bolster academic success, and believed that individuals of strong moral character were vital to a thriving community and society. Professor Smith wanted to ensure that every student had equal opportunity to flourish, encouraging students to see that education can serve as a stepping stone to one’s future. He believed young people having positive role models- someone to set the standard and accompany them in the process- was crucial to a young person’s growth and development. These beliefs and practices are what formed the backbone of TAP and PALS programs. YLF has continued to build upon Professor Smith’s mission for 25 years, with the TAP and PALS programs being a stronghold for years prior.

Until just before his passing, Professor Smith remained involved with YLF efforts, continuing to visit programs, serve as a guest speaker, and attend YLF functions. For those at YLF, Professor Smith was only a phone call away. He continued to live a ‘radical availability’ to those around him, and was always more than willing to give of his time. He lived out his love and passion for youth education until his last day, and ushered in generations of young people to take the helm.

Seizing Ordinary Moments

Here’s a tribute to a man who exemplified the heart of leadership through his conviction of investing in people, cultivating strong community, communicating God's love, and seizing ordinary moments. Professor Smith exuded a life of abundance; a life of service; a life of charity; a life of virtuous leadership. Many thanks to you Professor Smith, for the wisdom and mentorship you imparted to many, for your stable and ever-present support, for ensuring that tradition and history live on, and for pouring your heart and soul into the local community. You will be deeply missed, but your legacy will live on. May your eternal reward be ever greater.

In honor of Professor Smith’s dedication to the Opus Dei community, I’ll leave you with a quote from Saint Jose Maria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei, “He calls each and every one to holiness; he asks each and every one to love him: young and old, single and married, healthy and sick, learned and unlearned, no matter where they work, or where they are. There is only one way to become more familiar with God, to increase our trust in him.”

May we all seek to embrace the ordinary in everyday and see the potential that lies within each moment.


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