When J. R. and Claire Smeed of Bakersfield, Calif., approached the podium at the 2009 Commencement exercises, Chairman of the Board of Governors R. James Wensley presented them with a bronze bust of St. Albert the Great. This presentation marked the Smeeds’ induction into the Order of St. Albert, which was established some years ago to honor those benefactors who support the College to an outstanding degree. The bust is modeled after an original bronze sculpture of the 13th century saint by O. Dale Smith that stands outside of the College’s science building, Albertus Magnus Hall.
As the bust, order, statue, and building named in his honor suggest, St. Albert is a revered figure at the College. A bishop and celebrated scientist, he was also the instructor of the College’s patron. Just as St. Thomas Aquinas would not have achieved all that he did without the aid of his mentor, St. Albert, so too, Thomas Aquinas College could not accomplish the good that it does without the generosity of its benefactors.
Prominent among these benefactors are Mr. and Mrs. Smeed. As spouses and business partners, they have worked and lived throughout the world, from America’s Midwest to its West Coast to Canada and Africa. Their business ventures have taken them into such diverse industries as cable television, life insurance, microwave technology, banking, newspapers, and real estate. Over the decades, they have also been passionate philanthropists, giving largely to political and legal organizations that defend Constitutional freedoms.
They learned of the College in the early 1990s from their friend Tom Sullivan, the second chairman of the Board of Governors. As Mr. Smeed remembers it, one day Mr. Sullivan needed to get to the College in a hurry. “He mentioned, ‘Ah, gee, I’ve got to go back there — we’re having a real struggle. We’re trying to get reaccredited, and the powers that be want us to conform to what they want us to do. We’re fighting all by ourselves.’”
Mr. Sullivan refers to the College’s historic clash with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. At a time when it was itself seeking reaccreditation, the College led a fight against the adoption of a new accreditation standard declaring “diversity” to be an essential part of academic quality. The College feared this standard would eventually be used to force it to dilute its classical curriculum. Although still young and unknown, the College resisted this effort, and was eventually able to enlist some of California’s leading private colleges and universities in the cause.
That skirmish — with the College playing the role of David against Goliath — caught the Smeeds’ attention and won their admiration. “Let me know what we can do,” Mr. Smeed told Mr. Sullivan.
Since then, the Smeeds have become members of the President’s Council and they have visited campus regularly for graduations and weekend-long summer seminars held for Council members. They have even introduced friends and family members to the College, at times chartering buses to bring entire groups of their acquaintances down from Bakersfield.
A few years ago, however, they began to think of how they could do even more. “Since we have no children,” Mr. Smeed offers, “we were trying to figure out, well, what are we going to do with our estate?”
Their thoughts turned to a commercial building they own in San Marino, just outside of Pasadena, with stores on the bottom level and offices upstairs. They decided to leave the building as a legacy gift to the College in their will. Compounding this great generosity, the Smeeds later decided to add to their estate gift the 50 percent interest they own in a second, neighboring San Marino building. And in 2009, after acquiring the remaining share of that building, they chose to will it to the College in its entirety. Thus the Smeeds are now leaving two buildings to the College — an incredible legacy of good will and an investment in the College’s future.
As a small expression of the College’s profound gratitude, J. R. and Claire Smeed’s names have been engraved alongside the names of their fellow members of the Order of St. Albert, on the pedestal of the statue of St. Albert — just outside of Albertus Magnus Hall.