| WMU News
Dr. Robert L. Smith, professor emeritus of communication at Western Michigan University, died peacefully April 11 at home in Kalamazoo after a long illness. He was 82.
Smith joined the WMU faculty in 1964 and retired in 1996 after 31 years of service to the University. Survivors include his wife, Dr. Carol Payne Smith, WMU professor emeritus of teaching, learning and leadership.
He put his retirement on hiatus in 2004-05 to direct WMU's Master of Fine Arts program in performing arts administration, which was the first program of its kind in the Midwest.
Smith came to WMU to direct the University Theatre, a position he remained in until 1975, and played a critical role in the construction of the Laura V. Shaw Theatre building.
He initially taught in the Department of Speech (now the School of Communication) and affiliated with the communication unit after the performing arts were separated out in 1976 to form the Department of Theatre.
During his tenure, he devoted most of his energies to developing academic and co-curricular programs in theatre. Smith enjoyed teaching interpersonal communication and listening courses, but his preferences were directing, acting, oral interpretation, readers' theatre, oral interpretation of Shakespeare, and voice and diction.
His research interests included theatre communication; director-actor relationships in rehearsal situations; speech behaviors, particularly of Americans and broadcasters; black playwrights; and oral interpretation of literature.
Smith served one-year stints as a visiting professor of theatre at the University of Kansas, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He also was active on numerous WMU councils and committees, often serving as chair.
Smith earned a bachelor's and a master's degree from Bowling Green State University in 1956 and and 1957, respectively, and a doctoral degree from Michigan State University in 1968. He was a member of the Actors Equity, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society unions and the American Association of University Professors.
Before coming to WMU, he served as an instructor as well as the business manager and play director for the theatre program at Michigan State University. He also previously taught at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary.
Rather than focus on research and scholarly writing, Smith focused on creative activities, primarily acting, directing and scriptwriting.
In his first 11 years at WMU, he directed, performed in or both directed and performed in 55 productions, more than 30 of which were student productions on campus. Even as a professor of communication, though, he continued to be a theatrical force.
By the time Smith retired in 1964, he had directed more than 70 productions at the University and more than 100 in total since becoming active in the theatre in 1954. In addition, he had played more than 100 major roles in nearly 150 productions since 1951.
Smith enjoyed collaborating with his faculty colleagues from the music and dance departments. He is credited introducing plays written by African-American playwrights and being a leader in color-blind casting. His many memorable productions on campus included musicals, dramas, comedies and operas.
Along with his wife, Carol, Smith was a leader in local arts and civic organizations. The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo in 1999 presented him with the Medal of Arts for his extensive contributions to the cultural life of the community. Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre presented him in 2008 with the Larkin H. Noble Award for his lifetime of dedicated service to the organization.
After retiring, Smith remained active directing and acting in productions with nearly every local theatre group, plus Kalamazoo Central High School, the Battle Creek Civic Theatre and the Marshall Civic Players. He also served as the president of the board of directors of both the Civic Theatre and the Whole Art Theatre, and served on the board of the New Vic Theatre.
Visitors will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 22, in the Life Story Funeral Homes-Betzler, 6080 Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo.
A celebratory memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 23, in the First Presbyterian Church, 321 W. South St. in Kalamazoo.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Robert L. and Carol Payne Smith Opera Enrichment Fund or Jennifer, Katherine, Karen and Megan Smith Music and Theatre Students' Academic and Artistic Emergency/Special Projects Needs Fund. Both funds are administered by the WMU Foundation.