Whether he was coaching young girls to play basketball or counseling teenagers from a war-torn region of the world, Wil Smith was always there when he was needed.

“He had boundless energy and enthusiasm for life,” said Tim Gilbride, the men’s basketball coach at Bowdoin. “And that was contagious to other people. He could get people to do things that they didn’t think they could do.”

Smith died Sunday in Philadelphia after a three-year battle with colon cancer. He was 46 years old. Smith was remembered Monday as a caring man who affected everyone he met.

“He was a giant of a person,” said Tim Foster, dean of students at Bowdoin College, who both counseled Smith as a student and later worked with him. “He was not only a friend, but a teacher to me as well. And that’s what I’m going to hold on to most.”

Maine Sen. Angus King paid tribute to Smith in a statement submitted Monday to the U.S. Congressional Record.

“There is a hole in the heart of our community today,” King wrote. “But while Wil’s loss is felt by countless people, his legacy will be carried on by the thousands who were fortunate enough to know him.”


Smith worked at Bowdoin as associate dean of multicultural student programs and served as head basketball coach at Catherine McAuley High in Portland for four years. Most recently, he was dean of community and multicultural affairs at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where he was also the girls’ basketball coach.

Smith was also the associate director of the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, where he counseled children from often-warring countries from 1999 through last summer.

“He had a gift,” said Tim Wilson, a senior adviser for Seeds of Peace. “He knew how to listen. You have to learn how to sit and listen to whatever people have to say before you interrupt. He did that with the kids, whether they were playing basketball or whatever. He allowed them to say what needed to be said.

“He was just a wonderful human being. And that’s what I am going to miss.”

Gilbride, who coached Smith at Bowdoin and remained a close friend, added, “He really loved kids. And they could see that in him. Kids can tell right away if someone is genuine. He knew, if the kids had someone who could believe in them, they could succeed in ways they never imagined.”

Smith’s philosophy was simple. In a 2007 profile of him on “NBC Nightly News,” he said, “I think more than anything, young people need to know that the people who love them are going to love them no matter what.”


Sports agent Arn Tellem, who is on the Seeds of Peace board of directors, got to know Smith over the past decade. Tellem would bring NBA players to the camp each summer and said Smith earned their respect.

“Wil embodied the spirit of Jackie Robinson’s quote, ‘A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives,’ ” said Tellem in an email. “By this measure, Wil’s life was greatly important. He walked the walk every day of his life. Wil gave back much more than he ever received and made a huge difference in the lives of everyone who came in contact with him.”

Smith never considered anything he did special. “It’s hard for me to see my life’s work as being extraordinary,” he said in a 2007 Press Herald interview.

But Smith was never your typical coach, or college student. His players at McAuley, where he compiled a 54-26 record and won a Western Class A title, remember him as open and caring.

“There are a lot of things about him that I will remember,” said Ashley Cimino, who went on to play at Stanford University. “He was just a very inspirational person. He was a great motivator, he was someone we could always talk to. He was always open to us. And he was a great dancer.”

“We always had dance parties where he would show us his moves,” said Carolyn Freeman, who played three years for Smith at McAuley. “He was just a genuine person. You knew he cared for you as a person.”



His life’s story was so captivating that he was featured on “The Today Show” and “Oprah.”

Smith was the first single father to attend and graduate from Bowdoin (class of 2000), according to the school. His daughter Olivia often accompanied him to class, basketball practices and, eventually, his graduation ceremony. According to Bowdoin, Sony Pictures is interested in making a movie about his life.

Smith grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and lost his mother to cancer on his 15th birthday. He was starring in sports at the time, but her death changed that. “My mother was my biggest fan,” he once said. After she died, he wasn’t sure why he should continue to play. He attended Florida A&M University for a year, then dropped out. Eventually he joined the Navy and served in the first Gulf War.

Smith was based at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick when he volunteered to coach middle school football and basketball. Eventually he met Gilbride, who was taken by Smith’s character.

Gilbride convince Smith to apply to Bowdoin. Smith was 27. He was accepted but shortly before he was to begin classes, he was given sole custody of Olivia, then 11 months old.


He was immediately overwhelmed – by the classes, by single-parenthood and by his finances. He often went without eating so he could afford food for Olivia. He had no day care, so he brought her to classes. He lost about 20 pounds.

Eventually, after failing a Latin America Studies class because he couldn’t afford the books, Smith met with Bowdoin officials. They got him an apartment and a meal plan for both him and his daughter. A Bowdoin alum donated $25,000 to cover her child care.

Smith flourished in the classroom and on the basketball court where, Gilbride said, “he was hard-working, very team-oriented. What a surprise there.”

In a 2012 National Public Radio interview with Smith and his daughter, Smith said Olivia’s presence helped him grow. “There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you when you were sleeping,” he said to her. “And then go back to my studies.”

Foster, who met with Smith on the first day of his job at Bowdoin, said for all his life experiences, Smith never talked about his life.

“He was so completely unassuming and that made him all the more remarkable,” said Foster.


Bowdoin now presents an annual Wil Smith Community Service Award, which honors community work by a student-athlete.

Joe Kilmartin, the athletic director at McAuley, said the school will hold a memorial service for Smith, though the date has not been set.


“He was just so open and available to everybody all the time,” said Kilmartin. “He was always there for the kids, and not just McAuley kids. He was there for everybody.”

Kilmartin said Smith also ran a program on ethical leadership at the school for two years. “He was in the school as more than just a basketball coach.”

Those closest to Smith knew his health had taken a turn for the worse in December. Smith missed Wilson’s birthday on Jan. 23.


“He never missed it,” Wilson said. “That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Bowdoin’s Foster and many members of the Seeds of Peace organization visited Smith in Philadelphia, where he was hospitalized, last week. They were joined by family members, former students and friends.

“If there was an inspiring part, it was seeing all those people there,” said Foster. “There were so many for whom he had been a mentor and role model and coach, and to see them all come together made you realize the number of lives this person touched.”


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