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Gregory White Smith’69, Speaker for Academy’s 2011 Celebration of Leadership Event

On November 8, 2011, Columbus Academy students and faculty had the privilege of meeting alumnus Gregory White Smith’69, guest speaker for the school’s eighth annual Celebration of Leadership event. After graduating from Academy and serving as The Academy Life editor-in-chief in his senior year, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from Colby College. He proceeded to matriculate at Harvard Law school, where he met his partner, Steven Woodward Naifeh. They formalized their partnership in 1981 after founding Woodward/White, Inc. and have written 18 books together since. Their book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga won a Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1991 and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1990. Their recent biography, Van Gogh: The Life, is attracting worldwide attention, including a BBC interview with Smith and two “60 Minutes” segments, featuring Smith and Naifeh.

When Mr. Smith spoke to the upper school as a whole, he focused mostly on his time at Academy and his life experience, rather than his works. Although Mr. Smith is one of the most accomplished art historians of the day, he remains a true rebel at heart. Wheneditor of The Academy Life, Mr. Smith was almost expelled and had his last issue was incinerated after calling for the headmaster’s resignation and organizing a sit-in in the headmaster’s office. To this day, Smith retains the opinion that the administration was trying to control the newspaper.

After Academy and college, Smith and his father fought bitterly about whether Smith should attend Harvard Law School. Smith wanted to study English at Yale, but his father maintained if he could go to Harvard, he had to attend. As Smith said, “I knew the first day of law school that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.” Fortunately, Smith was able to find a group of like-minded individuals, including his life long partner, Steven Naifeh. By graduation, the pair had finished its first book.

In the 34 years since they graduated from law school, Smith and Naifeh have co-authored 18 books. As Smith explains, “People always ask me, “How do you write a book with two people?” I respond, “How do you write a book alone?” For Smith and Naifeh, the trade-off in their writing and researching responsibilities works to perfection, allowing each to do what he does best. Naifeh scrupulously investigates facts while Smith eloquently writes the thousands of pages of unedited material for each masterpiece.

Surprisingly, Mr. Smith’s talk to Academy students was not on Van Gogh, or even art or writing. Instead, Mr. Smith gave students talked to the upper school student body about his thoughts on his time at Academy and about the world in general. Perhaps most appealing was Mr. Smith’s years at Academy and the challenges he encountered. Smith spoke about a pervasive theme of bullying, but said that those “with hearts of gold” ultimately defined his experience.

Students throughout the high school can certainly learn from Gregory White Smith and his experiences that prove it is okay, even essential, to part from the crowd. If Mr. Smith taught students nothing else, he taught them that to make progress in society, individuals must swim against the proverbial current.

Written by Sandhya Ramaswamy’12 and Harry Wexner’13. Photos courtesy of Bob Lee.


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