Augustine Austin (A.A.) Smith1861-1883, First President
Augustine Austin Smith was born in 1806 on a farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
One of 11 children in a Calvinist family, he grew up valuing hard work and strict discipline. Work on the family farm allowed him to attend school for only two or three months in the winter. He supplemented his formal education with self-study and, at age 17, started teaching at the North Colebrook district school in Connecticut. While there he also attended Lenox Academy to enrich his education.
In 1828 Smith sought new opportunities in northeastern Ohio, an area known as the Western Reserve, where a large number of transplants from Connecticut had settled. He took up residence in Austinburg, where he met Eliza Cowles. They married in 1833. Eliza came from a family whose members had served as trustees and teachers at Oberlin College and other Ohio institutions; the family was also active in the abolitionist movement. Smith and his wife had five children.
Smith held the position of supervisor of accounts at Oberlin College, then taught mathematics and served as principal at the Grand River Institute in Austinburg between 1837 and 1857. He became president of Greensburg Seminary (Evangelical Association) in Summit County, Ohio, in 1857.
Smith was elected president of Plainfield College in 1861, but delayed his arrival in Plainfield until 1862 in order to honor his commitments to Greensburg Seminary. The honorary degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him by Oberlin College before his move to Plainfield. He supervised the move from Plainfield to Naperville and the construction of Old Main.
Smith shaped the educational principles on which the College developed. “A college,” he said, “should be a great moral lighthouse, sending out a clear and steady light upon all subjects that pertain to the well-being of man in this world and the world to come. An institution of learning should be the creator of public sentiment upon all the moral questions of the day, and not the follower of a corrupt public sentiment.”
Smith also cultivated music at the College. He believed that “good music, both secular and sacred, has a refining, elevating, purifying power.” Smith also encouraged students to exercise their bodies as well as their minds, opining that “a sound body is the condition for a sound mind.”
Throughout his tenure, Smith worked for the education of women as well as men: “Woman needs substantially the same education as man; the same physical, intellectual and moral training. She needs it for the same reason that man needs it, for the perfection of her own being, and for preparation for usefulness… I have no fears that woman, if thoroughly educated, will wander far from her proper sphere. I would have her prepared to fill any station she can well fill, and to perform any service which she can well perform.”
Smith retired from the presidency in 1883, but continued to participate in the College’s affairs as president emeritus. In addition to duties as president, Smith served as professor of mental and moral science from his arrival in 1862 until his death on December 8, 1891. Throughout their lives, A.A. Smith and his family actively supported abolition, temperance and women’s rights while fighting racial discrimination. Frances Willard, who headed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was a close friend of the family and often visited the Smith house in Naperville.