Bob Smawley, “Mr. WSU,” embodied what it meant to be a Cougar for generations of Washington State University students, staff, and alumni, through his selfless service to the University, his caring nature, and his deep knowledge of WSU history, all delivered with a dry sense of humor and true compassion.
For over six decades, Smawley worked under six WSU presidents in several departments, volunteered and led in the Alumni Association, taught many the history of WSU through engaging slideshows, and mentored thousands of students.
“He was the heart of WSU,” says Malia Martine Karlinsky ’92. “Bob had a magical way of making you feel valued and welcome.”
Robert B. Smawley died January 1, 2017, at the Guardian Angel Home in Liberty Lake, Washington. He was 88 years old.
Smawley was born in a farmhouse about a mile from Pullman in 1928 to Lewis and Linnie Smawley, the fifth of six children. The family moved into Pullman when he was in first grade.
After he graduated from Pullman High School, Smawley served in the Navy from 1946 to 1948. With the GI Bill in hand, Smawley returned to Pullman and became the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.
Smawley joined the Sigma Nu fraternity, and it was through his Greek connections that he met Carol Frost, a member of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. They eventually started dating, and then married in 1950 while still at college. It was the beginning of a lifelong partnership and a shared desire to give back to the community they would make their home.
It also helped Smawley finish up his degree, joking that Carol was his live-in tutor. “You can’t believe how my grades improved during the next two years, and I give Carol full credit for that,” Smawley told Pat Caraher ’62 in 2005, when Caraher, editor-emeritus of Hilltopics and retired senior editor of Washington State Magazine, interviewed his longtime colleague Smawley for an oral history.
Bob and Carol started their family while studying in Pullman, and had three daughters: Debbie Olsen ’73, Laurie Sahlberg ’77, and Susie Waananen ’85.
“He was such a great provider and protector, always looking out for his daughters and Mom,” says Sahlberg.
After he graduated in 1952, the Smawleys moved briefly to Spokane for work, but soon returned to Pullman. His first job at the college in 1953 as athletic tickets manager and Cougar Club coordinator kicked off more than 60 years of work and volunteer positions at WSU.
From ticket manager, Smawley joined the purchasing office, which he eventually led. He then became director of general services and superintendent of the University Police. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he assisted with protest sit-ins, the arson fire that destroyed Rogers Field stands, and bomb threats.
In 1972, Smawley became the first director of the new Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum, while he still kept the job of general services director. He became interim director of University Relations, spent nine years in that department, and then “retired” in 1982.
His retirement was short-lived, as then-President Glenn Terrell asked Smawley to stay on to help the new vice president of University Relations, Stan Schmid, in the transition. Smawley remained as an assistant to Schmid for 11 more years, retiring again in 1993.
Smawley also volunteered around the University throughout his tenure: selection committee for the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame, building and facilities naming committee, WSU Parents Association, and many others.
Both Bob and Carol Smawley devoted time and energy to Pullman, as well. In addition to other groups, Bob Smawley was president of the chamber of commerce in 1977–78, president of the Lions Club, and a member of the hospital board.
Smawley was very committed to WSU alumni, serving in many capacities in the Alumni Association, including president of the Alumni Association in 1989–90, WSU’s centennial year.
Spokane attorney Bill Hyslop ’73 later succeeded Smawley as president, as did current WSU Regent Mike Worthy ’77, and Rich Lemargie ’70. All of them admired Smawley tremendously: “We had so much fun working with him that we were dubbed ‘Bob’s Boys.’ We even had sweatshirts made up for a retreat.”
Hyslop met Smawley in the early 1970s, when Hyslop was a student leader and they worked on fundraising for building Martin Stadium. “I was one of hundreds he mentored. He loved people, and people loved him,” says Hyslop, who went on to become a U.S. attorney and president of the Washington State Bar Association.
Smawley assisted Alumni Association Director Keith Lincoln ’61 and others in designing the distinctive Lewis Alumni Centre out of the old beef barn. Bob and Carol Smawley, along with Lincoln, laid the donor tiles on the floor themselves, says Alumni Association manager Mark Wilcomb ’85.
He started at the WSUAA in 1989 and recalls Smawley’s friendliness and warmth as he taught Wilcomb how to give tours of the building.
One of Smawley’s favorite jobs was unofficial historian of the University. Beginning in the early 1980s, his famous slideshows educated and entertained everyone from student groups to retiring University presidents and regents. Smawley said he had around 8,000 slides in 20 categories.
“Bob was a walking history book,” says Hyslop. “He knew more about WSU than anyone else who has graced the campus.”
His presentations, carefully tailored to each group, originally used a slide carousel, but Smawley began digitizing in the mid-2000s with the help of WSU staff members Rich Scott ’71 and Henry Moore.
Beyond all of his other work, Smawley was a mentor and sounding board for many WSU students. Karlinsky says that “Coug daughters” such as herself and Victoria Miles Suzuki ’93 benefitted from Smawley’s friendship and encouragement. When she was ASWSU vice president, says Karlinsky, “he would take me to coffee or ice cream and we’d chat. He became like my second dad.”
It kept Smawley connected, too. “He was so energized by the college and the students,” says his daughter Sahlberg.
Smawley received many awards at the University: Alumni Achievement award, Outstanding Service Award, Staff Member of the Year, and, most of all, the Weldon B. “Hoot” Gibson Distinguished Volunteer Award in 2011, a fitting tribute to his life of service to WSU.
The love of his life, Carol, passed away in 2013 at the age of 81. She had completed her WSU degree in 1983, a master’s in education in 1985, and worked for the Pullman schools.
One of Smawley’s other passions was gardening, and he applied his green thumb to grounds around the Alumni Centre through 2015. Lincoln and other Alumni Association leaders designated the entrance as The Bob Smawley Courtyard.
Smawley told Caraher in 2005 he had worked at an on-campus tree nursery as a high school student: “If somebody had asked me how I got started at Washington State, it was pulling weeds. And how did I finish? I’m out at the Alumni Centre pulling weeds for Keith Lincoln, so I guess I’ve made the whole circle.”
Smawley’s care of plants came from his desire to see them grow and prosper, just as his sincere and caring nature for students, alumni, his family, WSU, and the entire Cougar nation led him to give so much to so many of us.
Washington State University history and traditions —
A celebration of Bob Smawley’s life will be held at the Lewis Alumni Centre on May 12, 2017, 1‑3 p.m.