Like many people born into a military family, Warren T. Smith, Sr. spent much of his childhood on the move. Smith and his family bounced around from base to base, living for a time in eight different states and overseas in Germany.
The experience gave Smith a unique perspective on public education. He attended schools in both poor and affluent districts, and he quickly learned that not all schools are created equally.
“What I got from that is that it’s very important for every student to have a high-quality, equitable education,” Smith said.
Smith got a chance to explore nearly every corner of America, but he always considered Pierce County his home. He was born at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord and finished his high school career at Lincoln High School in Tacoma.
After a brief stint studying business at Tacoma Community College, in 1970 Smith decided it was time to get a job and earn some money. The U.S. government, which was in the middle of the Vietnam War, had a different plan for Smith. Just weeks after leaving school, he received notice that he’d been drafted.
That draft notice started Smith’s two-year journey in the Army, where he witnessed young men — some of whom were high school dropouts — master high-pressure military jobs that would have required years of training in civilian life.
“It’s amazing what kids can do when you give them a chance,” he said. “What it told me is that we all learn in different ways and at different rates.”
With his military obligation over, Smith once again made a home for himself in Pierce County and began his career as a manager for the telephone company Pacific Northwest Bell. Smith, his wife and their three sons lived a comfortable and happy life, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he began to think once again about public education.
Smith’s interest in education was reignited in the years after Spanaway Lake High School opened. Smith’s children attended Spanaway Lake, and he soon began hearing stories about racial strife inside the school.
The district’s then Superintendent reached out to Smith to see if he could help bring the Spanaway Lake community together. That gesture sparked Smith’s passion for equitable education and prompted him to seek out a seat on the Bethel School Board.
As the only African American on the school board, it is sometimes assumed that Smith would pay special attention to issues affecting the district’s minority students. Instead, he chooses to look at the district holistically and fight to ensure that every student — no matter their race — is given the same chance to succeed in life.
“I can sit here as an African American man and say that I represent every student at every economic level within this district,” Smith said. “The message I send to the board is that that’s the way we need to look at it. These are all the children in the Bethel School District and we’re responsible for all of them, regardless of all that other stuff.”
Smith left the school board in 1999 to serve as president of the Washington Board of Education from 2000 to 2011. He was once again elected to the Bethel School Board in 2013, and he initially planned on serving only one term. But then he realized his two grandchildren were attending Graham-Kapowsin High School, and if he served one more term he would be able to hand them their high school diplomas when they graduated.
Smith had the opportunity to be on stage when his sons graduated from Spanaway Lake, and the idea of bookending his education career by giving diplomas to both his children and his grandchildren was too much to pass up.
“I said, ‘I need to run again because I would love to be able to give my grandkids their high school diplomas,’” he said.
Being able to preside over his son’s graduation ceremony was a high-water mark in Smith’s life, but he’s also lived through his share of grief. In 2011, Smith’s wife of 34 years passed away after a long illness. It was a devastating blow that Smith wasn’t sure he’d ever recover from.
“For the first four years after she passed away it was like I was in a cave, but then I woke up one morning and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is a beautiful world. There’s still life out there,’” Smith said.
Smith was recently able to reconnect with his old high school sweetheart online. Facebook chats turned to phone calls, and before long the pair realized they were in love. They’re now engaged to be married, and Smith says he feels rejuvenated.
“Our families say we’re like two teenage kids,” he said. “My sister said to me, ‘Warren, I haven’t heard you laugh like that in four years.’ Now I laugh all the time.”