News - Remembering former GU president Robert E. “Ish” Smith
Remembering former GU president Robert E. “Ish” Smith
Robert E. “Ish” Smith ’57, Greenville University’s ninth president, passed away August 18, 2021, following a recent illness. He was 85.
Ish, born in Dallas, Texas, in 1936, grew up playing a variety of sports with both neighborhood and church friends. Ish left Texas to attend Central College in Kansas. Later, he transferred to Greenville University (then College) as a junior in 1955, and planned to play baseball and basketball. Coach John Strahl offered him the job of student manager to the athletic teams, plus the role of junior varsity coach.
“I have thought many times, what if I had chosen to try and be an athlete rather than be Coach’s helper back in 1955?” Ish mused in an essay on his friendship with Strahl. “God certainly had better ideas than having me ‘sit the bench’ as a GC athlete.”
Ish majored in physical education and graduated from GC in 1957. Strahl later guided Ish to pursue a master's degree at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and then coach at Strahl's alma mater, Taylor University in Indiana.
Ish married Joanna (Riggs) on August 30, 1957. They enjoyed 60 years together before her passing in 2018.
Leadership at Greenville College
Robert Smith served as assistant to the president and director of alumni affairs from 1975-77. From 1977-1993 he was the vice president of institutional advancement at Greenville College and then served as president from 1993 until his retirement in 1999.
Ish will not only be remembered for his role with baseball, but also his emphasis on servant leadership. In a 2009 oral history interview with students, Ish recalled that emphasis starting the first year of his presidency.
“The student body president at the time was Jed Brown, and we had the floods in St. Louis on the Mississippi that year, terrible floods and all kinds of destruction,” Ish says. “Jed came to me and said, ‘President Smith, rather than taking the all-school hike, let’s go into St. Louis and do a day of helping replace housing and whatever flood relief [is needed].’”
Ish agreed, and that year, close to 600 students and faculty took busses to St. Louis to put in work as servant-leaders.
“We came home stinky and dirty, but fulfilled,” Ish said.
Along with Ish establishing the servant leader mission, other accomplishments during his tenure include:
- Dedication of Robert A. Briner Seminar Room in Young Memorial Tower (1995)
- Degree completion program for adults (GOAL) began (1996)
- Two new tennis courts completed (1996)
- Athletic Department joined NCAA (1996)
- NCA 10-year accreditation (1996)
- Lamp program (master’s in ministry) began (1997)
- President’s Dining Room refurbished (1997)
- Dedication of Zahniser Institute for Environmental Studies (1998)
Organizations and activities:
- Campus Activities Board (CAB) originated (1995)
- Alumni reunions moved to June (1996)
After his presidency at Greenville concluded, Ish developed the footprint of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in southern Illinois, serving as an area director for over a decade.
“It was in the fifth grade, one of my friends I think is "blamed" or "credited" as the case may be, but we talked dog-Latin or pig-Latin, whichever you might call it. Well, if you say my name, Robert Smith, you would say Obert-ray, ith-smay and somewhere between obert-ray ith-smay and Ishmaelite in the Bible, I got the long nickname: Ishmaelite incandescent fluorescent GE General Electric light bulb. I like to say it was because I was so bright, but then it got shortened to Ishmaelite, and then by the time I came to Greenville it was either Ishme or Ish and that came through Central College, to Greenville, same group of friends you know, and so I had more report cards at Greenville and Central that had Ish Smith on them than had Robert E. Smith. But I think probably because there are so many Bob Smiths, it separated me from the others, and it stuck. Years later, most of my friends in baseball now also call me Ish, but that happened, for the most part after I got out of baseball. But that's who I am.”
Ish returned to Greenville in 1961 to coach baseball and teach in the physical education department. He skippered the Panther baseball program from 1961 to 1974, and took a two-year leave spanning the 1970 and 1971 seasons to pursue his doctorate at Florida State University. In 1969, his Panther baseball program ended with a record of 21-5-1 and an appearance in the NAIA national baseball tournament. He was named NAIA national coach of the year after the 1969 season.
He concluded his career as GC baseball coach with an overall record of 141-96-1 and remained the winningest Panther baseball coach until he was eclipsed by his former player and former assistant coach David Altopp and later Altopp's former player and former assistant coach Lynn Carlson. Today, Smith's overall winning percentage of .595 is the best of those who have coached Greenville's baseball programs for five or more seasons, a list of just four men: Bob Marsh (6 seasons), Smith (11), Altopp (16), and Carlson (25).
Ish seized additional administrative opportunities that came his way in NAIA baseball, eventually becoming involved in national and international baseball. He served with U.S.A. and World baseball organizations from 1977 until 1993 and guided baseball into the 1984 Olympics. He was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Greenville College in 1992, and his 1969 baseball team was a 2004 selection for the GC Athletic Hall of Fame. Later, he was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame on February 11, 2019.
Ish is survived by his children, Charles "Chuck" ’85 and Cynthia Kay "Cyndi" ’85, daughter-in-law Rene ’85, and four grandchildren, Kayce ’15, Benton, Caleb, and Zach. A granddaughter Emily also preceded him in death.
A Celebration of Life for Ish will be held at 11 am on Saturday, October 2, at Greenville Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois. Visitation will be held 5 to 8 pm on Friday, October 1, also at the church.
Memorials may be made to the Greenville Free Methodist Church, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Greenville University at the service or at Donnell-Wiegand Funeral Home.