By Tim Bruner

You know President Sam Smith is in the room when you hear a York University employee being cheerfully asked, "Are you living the dream?" To answer the same question posed to himself, he would excitedly say, "I've been living the dream for the past four years!"

Smith's four-year tenure as York University's chief executive officer leaves behind a deeper imprint in the school's nearly 135-year-history than most might imagine. Considering the pandemic disruption of his first year, launching the school's most successful fundraising campaign ever and eventually overseeing the name change of York College to York University, it seems as though his four-year term may have lasted 14 years instead of four.

Just try to imagine a first-year president trying to learn 500-plus students' names without getting to see the faces that are covered by Covid-required masks. Imagine looking out at his chapel audience and seeing a sea of mouth-and-nose coverings in the place of facial responses to humor, spiritual inspiration and collegial outreach. With that, you are imagining Smith's first year as president at York.

Yet, imagine, too, all that was accomplished in those four years, despite the first-year Covid obstacles, the novelty of a return to campus after a 20-plus-year absence, a transplanting of a family that had only lived in the "Bible Belt" of the South, the immediate need of replacing departing/retiring faculty, staff and administrative employees, the very sad, sudden loss of his father in early 2022, assessing the pros and cons of an institutional name change, addressing the need for a current, viable institutional strategic plan, followed by a subsequently needed fundraising campaign, then reinforced with a series of "Meet the President" receptions in more than a dozen metropolitan locations across the Midwest and MidSouth. Oh, yes, and remember that this would include almost daily appearances in the local York community and at on-campus events, including chapel.

Other events that kept Smith occupied were the relocation of all administrative services to the fully renovated Hulitt Hall, the campus' most iconic facility over the previous century, the monthslong, successful reaccreditation process with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

Through those four years, Smith has shown himself to be the resolute "family man," supported in every way by his wife, Lisa, and their three children. The Smiths were frequent--almost constant-hosts with students in their home, visible at campus activities and events, and even together on road trips representing the university at functions in town, in the state and across the country.

YU's chairperson of the board of trustees, Dr. R. Wayne White '63, described Smith's efforts as "tireless" and his leadership as "impactful for generations to come."

"The York University board feels beholden to Dr. Sam Smith's leadership for overcoming the challenge of quarantine, Covid-testing issues and personal spacing requirements to experiencing impressive successes, including the transition from college to university status, the timely purchase of what is now Eckman Hall at an unbelievably affordable price and numerous other financial and academic success stories due to all-campus involvement owed to the leadership of Dr. Smith's administration."

Another trustee, Richard James '97, the board's vice-chair and an attorney from Wichita, adds that "President Smith was at York as a student and then got to come back and put his fingerprint on our success. He and his wife, Lisa, were committed to getting the York story out to others. Lisa has held the role of York’s biggest cheerleader and has constantly been by his side as he traveled in support of the York mission. Dr. Smith continued a long tradition of York presidents who were committed to doing God’s will and making our campus a place where students, faculty and staff could grow in their relationship with Jesus. The renaming and reimagining of chapel to “The Well” was consistent with that goal."

According to Kelly Holthus, chairman of the board at York's Cornerstone Bank, "Sam Smith has been the right person to lead York University over the past four years. He has been a breath of fresh air—outgoing, positive, happy—and always with a smile on his face. We loved having him visit the bank; with his personality, he just made everyone feel good. He and his wife Lisa have been outstanding representatives of the university within the community of York."

Jared Stark '01, vice president for advancement and currently interim president, considered Smith's most significant contribution during his term to be his constantly positive mindset: "Every day he came to work, you could tell he loved his job and wanted others to do so as well. He regularly reflected the pleasure of his work with a smile on his face, an encouraging word in his voice and an energetic bounce in his step. But even more, he has demonstrated a commitment to God as his compass and his spiritual focus in his leadership of this campus."

Other administrators weighed in with similar assessments. Newly named vice president for enrollment Roni Miller '01, noted, "Under President Smith's stewardship, the York University campus has sustained, a remarkable metamorphosis, into a vibrant campus with state-of-the-art facilities, a thriving academic community, and a renewed campus landscape. Sam is leaving a legacy of progress and growth."

Athletic Director Garrett Schwarz '07 reflected on Smith's commitment to the mission of YU: "During his leadership, we saw the remodel of the Brian Lemons Athletic Training Center, improvement in the men's basketball locker room and the addition of a presidential VIP suite in the Freeman Center, not to mention the new turf in the Holthus Field House. Mostly, though, I remember regular meetings that focused on athletic matters for half the time, then on faith and family for the other half of our time. That left a huge impression."

Brent Magner '79, longtime vice president for advancement who continues in a role as senior advancement officer, points to the recent successful accreditation review. According to Magner, Smith's wisdom in filling the vacant provost position with Dr. Shannon Leinen '07 during the ongoing reaccreditation process proved to be providential, as she effectively and efficiently guided the academic leadership team to a previously unrealized extension. Moreover, York's continued stability in an era of upheaval in higher education has been enviable, according to Magner, who added, "President Smith stayed the course and finished some important projects begun under the previous administration, then added and completed important projects of his own. He held on to and reinforced our core values at all levels in the institution."

Felipe Venegas '22, a recent YU graduate who came from Chile initially to play soccer for York, attributes his own personal, spiritual awakening to the attention of Smith and his family to Felipe's struggles as a student and as a child of God:

"I was at a low point, feeling overwhelmed and disconnected as an international student, and President Smith took a proactive interest in me and my circumstances. He reached out to me, listened to my concerns, spent time with me in prayer, provided support and encouragement to me in reconnecting me with my faith, all of which led to my baptism. His genuine care for me made a difference in my life, and God transformed me through that relationship. He and his family took me into their home, treated me as one of their own and demonstrated to me the Christian example that we should all be to others. I can't thank the Smith family enough for sharing Jesus with me and showing me what God can do with my life."

Tim Lewis '84, assistant professor of business, viewed Smith through a multi-perspective lens over the four-year term of his leadership. He effectively summed up a frequently cited frame of reference with many of those who have grown close to Smith and his family:

"From the moment Sam Smith set foot back on the York campus, this time not as a student but as its president, he hit the ground running. His administrative background in student services led him to see our little campus through the eyes of our potential customers, the students, instead of the nostalgia of the past.

To those of us who have had the blessing to work closely with President Smith, we will remember him as a man of energy, passion, hospitality, humility and deep faith. He was the right person at the right time for this beloved institution.

Sam and Lisa will be fondly remembered for their time at York. They lived and modeled the mission of York University in their personal and professional lives. More importantly, they embodied what true believers, true disciples and true spiritual leaders should look like in a Christian higher education setting. They will be sorely missed."

Asked about his own personal favorite memories of his time at York, Smith quickly points to the many Bible studies with students, especially the frequent one-on-one moments in prayer and study that resulted in student baptisms. He noted that those meetings and the subsequent spiritual relationships will be a "collective forever memory" from his time at York that will stay with him through life, wherever that takes him.

"I've had so many mountaintop experiences with so many wonderful people at York—alumni, donors, trustees, community members, neighbors," he said. "But those meaningful relationships with students that grew through the sharing of the good news of Jesus trumps everything. Looking into their eyes and hearing them voice their growing faith touched the core of my heart. That reflects the lasting significance of my four years here."

The Smith family will begin another ministry in July when Smith becomes president of Mount Dora Christian Academy and Children's Home in Mt. Dora, Fla. With a similar perspective when he took over the reins at York four years ago, Smith looks forward to another new challenge, an opportunity to model Christian servantleadership and an arrangement where his time will even more greatly involve his family's needs.

He's lived the dream at York, so York University wishes God's blessings for the Smiths as Sam plans to live the new dream at Mount Dora.