08 December 2004
Norvel Smith, vice chancellor for student services at Berkeley for nearly 10 years, a pioneering African American educator, and a longtime community leader, died of a brain tumor Saturday, Nov. 27, at his Oakland home. He was 80.
With his 1973 appointment to lead a unit responsible for a wide range of student-related programs, Smith joined UCLA Vice Chancellor C.Z. Wilson as the two top-ranking African Americans in the UC system. Under Smith’s supervision, Berkeley launched the Student Learning Center tutoring program, which still exists today.
Smith was one of a group of professional African American men (such as Lionel Wilson, Allen Broussard, Evelio Grillo, Don McCullum, and Clinton White) who were active leaders in African American politics, the civil-rights and black-power movements, and East Bay politics.
A native of Lynchburg, Va., Smith served in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy during World War II. Afterward, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.S. and M.S. in business education in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In 1951, Smith earned a doctorate in educational administration from Berkeley.
From 1954 to 1963, Smith worked at the Alameda County School Department. He was hired as director of Oakland’s Department of Human Resources in 1963 and implemented one of the nation’s first poverty programs. From there he served as deputy director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1967 and ’68, leaving to become president of Oakland’s Merritt College — and the first African American to head a California college.
Smith guided Merritt during times of student and civil-rights unrest that saw the birth of the Black Panthers organization on campus. He increased the diversity of the college’s faculty and staff, won approval for the first black-studies department at a California college or university, and secured funding for the first on-site child-care facility for community-college students.
Smith came to Berkeley as vice chancellor of student services in 1973. At the time, student services was a complex organization, including housing and dining, tutoring, outreach, admissions, relationship with schools, job placement, student health services, the registrar’s office, and financial aid. Smith retired from that post in 1982.
Active in community affairs, Smith served on numerous boards of directors, including those of the College Entrance Examination Board, Institute for Study of Educational Policy, and UC Berkeley Black Alumni Association. He and his wife assisted efforts such as Berkeley’s Cal Opportunity Scholarship Program, launched by the faculty (with the incoming class of 2000) to support high-achieving, socio-economically disadvantaged students from selected low-income high schools. The couple also supported Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, which provides music education for economically disadvantaged youth.
After Smith’s retirement, he studied the cello and rehearsed weekly with the Oakland Community Orchestra. He was an avid reader and loved to walk, play tennis, and golf, activities he enjoyed until shortly before his death.
Smith is survived by his wife, Mary, a longtime Oakland Technical High School teacher and co-founder of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program (MESA). She asks that memorial contributions be sent to the Community Orchestra c/o Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 13267, Oakland, CA 94661; the United Nations Association Information Center’s Youth Program, 1403-B Addison St., Berkeley, CA 94702; the Oakland Museum of California Foundation, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA, 94607; or another charity.
A private memorial service is planned for the spring.
— Kathleen Maclay