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Norvel Smith, former UC Berkeley vice chancellor, dies at 80

– Norvel Smith, a University of California, Berkeley, vice chancellor for student services for nearly 10 years, a pioneering African American educator and a longtime community leader, died of a brain tumor Saturday 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's Vice Chancellor C.Z. Wilson as the two top-ranking African Americans in the University of California system. Under Smith's supervision, UC Berkeley launched the Student Learning Center tutoring program, which still exists today.

Norvel Smith
Norvel Smith
"He was a consummate administrator," recalled Ira Michael Heyman, who worked with Smith at UC Berkeley before Heyman was named  chancellor of the campus in 1980. "He had really marvelous judgment in choosing people to work with."

At the time, student services was quite complex and included housing and dining, tutoring, outreach, admissions, relationships between schools, job placement, student health services, the registrar's office and financial aid, said Heyman, who also is a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of law.

Smith recently had completed interviews about his personal history with UC Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office. According to the history, 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 took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He told "The UC Employee" newsletter in 1975 that while at the university, "the possibility of being a postman like my father was transformed."

He earned a B.S. and M.S. in business education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1949 and 1950, respectively. Then he accepted a teaching position in the business department of Texas Southern University in Houston, where Smith met and married Mary Perry.

The couple moved to California in 1951. Smith told The UC Employee that from 1951-1953, when he and his wife lived in University Village, he studied in the day and taught school at night. In 1956, he earned a doctorate in educational administration from UC Berkeley.

From 1954-1963, Smith worked at the Alameda County School Department in posts that included administrative research assistant and director of research.

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 from 1967-1968, leaving to become president of Oakland's Merritt College -- and the first African American to head a California college.

At Merritt, Smith guided the college 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 joined UC Berkeley as vice chancellor of student services in 1973 and retired in 1982.

Active in community affairs, he served on the boards of directors for such organizations as the College Entrance Examination Board, Institute for Study of Educational Policy, Oakland Museum Association, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, UC Berkeley Black Alumni Association, Rosenberg Foundation, Oakland Ensemble Theatre, Head Royce School, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Alta Bates Hospital and San Francisco's University High School.

"He was a very significant figure on campus and at Merritt (College), and was very important to Oakland development," said Charles Henry, a UC Berkeley professor of African American Studies. Henry said he was touched that Smith still maintained interest in UC Berkeley long after his retirement. A few years ago, Henry recalled, Smith combed his own personal collection and donated to the African American Studies library on campus several boxes of books that relate to field --- some of the books that today are quite hard to find.

Smith and his wife assisted efforts such as UC 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 program's funding began with a Zaffaroni Family Foundation donation of $1 million, followed by a $280,000 pledge by Smith and others. The couple also supported UC 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, Calif., 94661; the United Nations Association Information Center's Youth Program, 1403-B Addison St., Berkeley, Calif., 94702; the Oakland Museum of California Foundation, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, CA, 94607l; or another charity.

A private memorial service is planned for the spring.