Robert Smithwick Remembered as 'Capital F' Founder

Vision, practicality, and oh, those thoughtful little brown notes, marked a man of uncommon devotion to community in making Foothill and De Anza colleges a reality.


Dr. Robert C. Smithwick was remembered Friday for his far-reaching vision that brought about the formation of the Foothill-DeAnza College District (FHDA) during a heady time in the growth of Silicon Valley.

The pediatric dentist, who arrived in Sunnyvale after World War II, died March 22 in his home overlooking the first college the new district built. At his memorial service, speaker after speaker paid tribute to the man who was the driving force in creating an institution in 1957 that would grow to serve 1.5 million students today. 

And there were a lot of people who wanted to give him his due, from U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, the district's former chancellor from 2003-2009 and former president of DeAnza College, to a member of the first graduating class of 1960.

Foothill President Judy Minor, FHDA Chancellor Linda Thor, former trustee Ray Bacchetti, and Celebrity Forum Founder Dick Henning were the official speakers in the memorial program, then guests were invited to share their tributes.

Administrators and faculty members reminisced about Dr. Smithwick's little brown handwritten notes of thanks, encouragement or thought, including on occasion, a recent newspaper clipping.

Chancellor Linda Thor described how Smithwick was the first person she visited when she came to the district in 2010. She described how four new high schools were opened in the ten years while serving on the Fremont Union High School District. But his biggest challenge was yet to come.

After convincing the public of the importance of creating the community college district in 1957, he was elected to the first board of trustees, and pushed to open classes for Foothill Junior College within 18 months, Thor described. As president of the board, he got the first capital bond passed, chose the site, hired the architect, and a year later purchased the site for De Anza.

"He always struck me as the 'Capital F' founder," said Ray Bacchetti, who served on the board of trustees at a later date. Smithwick had both vision and practicality, and the ability to wrangle the critics and experts while trying to execute the the goal, Bacchetti said.

"We know something amazing came in the mind and heart of the founder we are here to honor," he said. "When our district started, Bob must have had an inkling of what our community colleges would become."

Foothill and De Anza are examples of the "islands of excellence" that have to be replicated, said Kanter, using a term she has applied to schools she has visited across the country. Like many of the speakers, she first met Smithwick many years ago. And she recounted something she had in common with the others.

"I was 43 and the second president of DeAnza, and I, too, started receiving those little brown notes," she said, to much laughter.

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District serves residents of Palo Alto, Stanford, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and parts of San Jose.

"If you wanted adventure, this is about as high as one could go in public education —to be able to develop your own program, your own faculty in a brand new college..."

—Dr. Smithwick, oral history, 1995-1996


Also in Los Altos Patch

  • Dr. Robert Smithwick 'Father of Foothill DeAnza' Passes
  • Robert Smithwick Memorial Service Set For April 19


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