Editor’s Note: Robert S. Smith, a chaplain with the Cornell Catholic Community, died on July 27. He was 78. After a nearly 50-year career as an ordained priest, he retired to Ithaca in 2002 and began serving at the Cornell Catholic Community in 2004. Below is a tribute to “Father Bob,” written by former Sun columnist Shahar Ziv ’05.
As I turned on my computer one recent morning, I felt a sharp pain in my stomach as a simple Outlook reminder popped up, “Call Father Bob”. Having received the sad news that my dear friend and mentor had passed away, I was left to navigate the feeling of knowing that our monthly calls, something I eagerly awaited, would no longer occur. To try and encapsulate how much Robert Smith meant to those around him is an impossible task; however, in mourning his death and memorializing his life, we should all take solace in the impact he had on, the happiness he brought to, and the great friendships he developed with so many.
It is perhaps a bit ironic that a young Jewish man would come to consider an ordained Catholic priest of more than 50 years as a close friend; it seems to defy the connotation of friendship that society has instilled in us. In fact, I am embarrassed to say that at first, I was quite skeptical of opening up to him. But as we got to know each other — first while he served as chapter advisor to my fraternity and then as members of the fraternity’s alumni board — our business-like relationship soon blossomed into a close friendship. It was impossible not to be drawn in by his warmth, his exuberance and his ideas. Somehow, whenever I met with Father Bob, life came back into perspective and I felt more grounded. Whether it was chats in the inviting confines of his office, dinners in Collegetown, or phone calls when I moved away from Ithaca, we always had amazing, rich and thought-provoking conversations that reinvigorated me.
When I applied to business school, Father Bob wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf. He graciously let me read his submission and what stood out were the metrics by which he chose to evaluate me. Father Bob focused on humanistic elements and was able to personify facets of character in a way that I had never seen articulated before. He didn’t focus on why I was a good candidate in contrast to others; he emphasized why I was a good candidate because of my impact on others. I found this distinction telling, and it epitomizes Father Bob’s legacy of helping each of us develop an appreciation of our own gifts. I felt slightly embarrassed reading his words, knowing that what he wrote about me was 1000 times truer when reflected back on him, but also grateful, knowing that part of my success was due to his influence.
At Cornell, where students come trained to focus on grades and financial success metrics, Father Bob personalized the experience and encouraged students to “embrace the opportunity for thoughtfulness.” Father Bob helped students realize that while they were at Cornell to get an education, that didn’t just mean academics and that they should dedicate some of their precious time towards unquantifiable things like developing quality friendships and taking strides towards personal growth. His ability to transcend the age gap and connect with students is a testament to his humility, generosity and thoughtfulness.
Whenever we went to dinner together, Father Bob had a policy on how to pay the bill that I came to greatly respect. Instead of splitting the check, he said that he would cover the entire portion, provided I would donate an equal amount to a cause that was important to me. As Father Bob put it, “that way everyone benefits.” I have no doubt this was distilled through his years in the church, but almost paradoxically, Father Bob and I never had a discussion about religion; I think he simply realized that I saw the world through a different lens. Religion was unequivocally a centerpiece of his own life, but what I truly appreciate is how Father Bob didn’t force this on others. Rather, he was also able to draw upon his experiences in the church and channel the lessons in an appropriate fashion, adapting to the needs of others. With me, it meant diverting from specific religious elements; for others, it meant deep and complex discussions focused explicitly on it.
In the July 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen wrote a poignant and inspirational article entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Summarizing his advice to students, he wrote:
“I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched . . . Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
Father Bob – there is no doubt in my mind that you not only chose the right yardstick to measure your life, but that your life was also a resounding success when evaluated by it. It is often said that “death ends a life, not a relationship” and I will carry forward all the lessons from our friendship as I go forward. Your epitaph, in my mind, reads as that of a true friend among friends, one who gave more than he took, touched the lives of many, and helped each of us appreciate our gifts and become better human beings.