Dr. Lucy Freeman Smith Endowed Scholarship celebrates pioneering public school superintendent

Winter 2019

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Friends and colleagues are honoring the legacy of Dr. Lucy Freeman Smith, who was one of Oklahoma’s first female school superintendents, through a new scholarship for teachers and administrators pursuing graduate degrees.

Friends and colleagues are honoring the legacy of Dr. Lucy Freeman Smith, who was one of Oklahoma’s first female school superintendents, through a new scholarship for teachers and administrators pursuing graduate degrees.

As one of few female Oklahoma school superintendents, Lucy Freeman Smith opened the door for women who followed in her footsteps. Her friends, family and former students are making sure the door stays open though a new scholarship established at the University of Oklahoma Foundation.

The Dr. Lucy Freeman Smith Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund was created in November and already has attracted more than $57,000 from some 50 donors, including large gifts from Freeman Estates Inc. and the McGowan Family Foundation. The scholarship will benefit Oklahoma K-12 teachers and administrators who are pursuing graduate degrees.

“Dr. Lucy,” who died in July, held a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology from OU and had a 45-year career in education, primarily in her hometown of McAlester, Okla. She served as superintendent of McAlester Public Schools from 1985 to 2006; at the time of her appointment, Smith was one of only two women superintendents in Oklahoma.

Among her many accolades, Smith received the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Outstanding Administrator Award, which was presented in 1994 by former President George H.W. Bush. In 2005, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Educator Hall of Fame.

“The main thing about Lucy that was extraordinary was her ability to get things done,” said her husband of 49 years and retired professor of finance, Weldon Smith. “She never stopped.”

Lucy inherited an unfinished high school started with one-time federal funds. A bond issue to complete the project had failed several times, Weldon said, but she made her case to the community and convinced voters to approve the bond shortly after being hired.

“Lucy had a real feel for people and students. She loved kids and was anxious that they had a good foundation,” he said.

“Dr. Smith was spectacular at what she did,” added OU Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education Dean Gregg Garn, who worked with Smith on a research project about Oklahoma women in education administration. “Oftentimes, I think what is missed is the statewide impact that she had. She mentored many women who aspired to be superintendents but who were overcoming all kinds of barriers and expectations.”

Garn said that as much as 75 percent of public-school professionals nationwide are women. At the time Smith became superintendent, only 7 percent of U.S. superintendents were women.

“School boards often saw women as really good at curriculum, but maybe not as good at finance or being able to negotiate contracts,” he said. “Those stereotypes really worked against women. Lucy quickly showed that stereotypes had nothing to do with her gender or ability to be a good leader.”

Weldon Smith shared an incident that shattered any preconceived notions about his wife’s abilities. Early in her superintendent career, an enraged parent demanded to see her. “His name was Dennis. He looked dangerous and said he’d recently been released from prison for manslaughter,” Smith recalled. “Instead of shaking hands, he banged her desk with his fist and said that he wasn’t going to put up with his 8-year-old being mistreated because his dad was an ex-con.

“After reassuring the man that she didn’t stand for bullying and would take care of this problem, Lucy attempted to find common ground,” he said. She related that she had a distant in-law also incarcerated at the prison.

“It turned out that Dennis was a buddy who had played chess with him many times, and he left Lucy’s office as her friend and a fan,” Smith said. “The story spread quickly. Lucy always thought it probably helped change people’s minds about her ability as a woman to handle difficult people and situations.”