Since before his time in the Navy and then as a fixture at Bowdoin College, Wil Smith had a gift of working with children.

As associate director of Seeds of Peace’s International Camp in Otisfield, he had an undeniable ability to connect with kids, whether they came from troubled pasts nearby or war-ravaged nations, his colleagues said. He was a natural mentor.

“I think more than anything, young people need to know that the people who love them are going to love them no matter what,” Smith told Brian Williams in a 2007 profile on the “NBC Nightly News.”

Smith died Sunday after a three-year battle with colon cancer, according to colleagues and friends. He was 46.

“Thousands of lives around the world (are) richer today because he was a part of them,” said Leslie Lewin, executive director of Seeds of Peace, where Smith had worked for 16 years.

Before his career as a mentor and educator, Smith grew up in Florida, the youngest of 10 siblings.

On his 15th birthday, his mother, Mildren, died of cancer, according to a biography of Smith published by Bowdoin College. Her death weighed on Smith but helped him focus on how to best live his life, said Tim Gilbride, who was the coach of the Bowdoin men’s basketball team when he met Smith in 1995.

After Smith graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Navy, serving seven years, including in the first Gulf War. During a stint at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, Smith was working with some local youths and was introduced to Gilbride.

Smith enrolled at Bowdoin in 1996 and was a strong guard on the men’s basketball team, Gilbride said.

Gilbride recognized that children naturally looked up to Smith, and that Smith was a passionate advocate for them in return.

“He was like the Pied Piper, they loved him,” Gilbride said.

Smith was also a single father who took full custody of his daughter, Olivia, when she was 11 months old.

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Listen to Wil Smith talking to his daughter Olivia in this June 15, 2012, segment on NPR:

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Olivia was the center of Smith’s life, Gilbride and others said. Balancing fatherhood, college classes and athletics proved a challenge, but Gilbride said he and many others at Bowdoin rallied around Smith, and that Smith was an inspiring force in their lives.

Over the years, Smith’s life and story drew glowing attention from the news media, and on multiple occasions he was a guest or interview subject in local, regional and national reports, including appearances on the “Today” show, “Oprah” and the “NBC Nightly News.”

After graduating from Bowdoin in 2000, Smith joined the faculty at the college as director of multicultural student programs. Smith went on to earn his law degree at the University of Maine School of Law, before returning to Bowdoin in 2006 as associate dean of multicultural student programs.

In 2010, Smith was hired as the first dean of community and multicultural affairs at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Two years later, Smith was diagnosed with colon cancer, according to information released by Bowdoin.