According to civil rights activist Virginia Foster Durr, there were three paths a privileged Southern woman could follow. She could live the unexamined life of a Southern belle. She could lose her mind and go crazy. Or she could honor her rebellious spirit, “step outside the magic circle” and blaze a new path into a world she would have otherwise never known.
Leading an examined life is precisely the unexpected path chosen by Avondale Mills heiress Mignon Comer Smith, who died of a heart attack at the age of 81 while working at her desk two years ago.
An avid horsewoman, in 1954 Smith became the youngest Joint Master of the Fox Hounds in the United States, notorious in the horse world for sporting the pink collar traditionally worn by men, instead of wearing black typically worn by women.
A budding entrepreneur, during her early 20s, this Sylacauga native established the first English-style riding school in Alabama. She also created a pony club for young riders, often providing access and resources for the underprivileged to ride.
She owned a stud farm, now known as Mede Cahaba Stables and Stud LLC, and later became an outspoken proponent of horse track racing in Birmingham.
During the 1970s, Smith moved to Washington, D.C., where, as a pioneering member of the Alabama Republican Party, she redefined her life as a Southern woman. There, she reported for the Alabama Radio Network for 30 years, acting as the White House correspondent during the Nixon administration. While in Washington, though, she retained a vital connection to Alabama politics, social circles and family.
As CEO of Avondale Mills, her father, J. Craig Smith, instituted a college scholarship program for the millworkers’ most promising sons. He even paid college tuition for many of their daughters. His generosity and belief in education as a way to level the playing field left an impression on Smith.
In 2004, following her father’s example, Smith founded the J. Craig and Page T. Smith Scholarship Foundation with a $10 million endowment, also naming it the beneficiary of her $30 million dollar charitable remainder trust.
Smith believed, like her father, education was Alabama’s greatest resource. She also viewed education as crucial for Alabama to maintain a competitive edge in a global economy.
A tribute to her father’s legacy, the Smith Foundation provides up to full tuition, room, board and books at select Alabama colleges for graduating Alabama high school students who show excellence in character and have contributed to their community through service, despite facing personal challenges. Graduating seniors who have a minimum C+ average are eligible, and each year the foundation’s Board of Trustees chooses deserving students from more than 1, 000 applications.
What makes this innovative scholarship program different is the fact these students are not chosen based on pure academic merit or financial need. These students, often first in their families to attend college, have been committed to community service in the face of overwhelming personal circumstances — often holding down a job for the family’s survival and still finding time to volunteer.
During the selection process, a subjective component plays a key part in each decision, says Ahrian Dudley, the foundation’s executive director, chief legal counsel and a longtime friend of Smith. “Is this a good kid who survived beyond what you would expect and thrived helping others? Does he have that extra spark that means he’s going to make it?”
The foundation carefully considers college choices for each student to ensure the best fit. To remain part of the program, students must maintain a minimum C+ grade average and continue to be involved in a civic role. “It is an accountability program, not a welfare program, ” says Dudley.
As these students navigate their way through college, they shoulder more than just maintaining their grades, good behavior and community service. Often they face resentment and misunderstanding from the families and communities they’ve left behind. Many times they lack the basic necessities most college students take for granted — clothing, dorm room furniture and supplies, even adequate housing when they go home for the holidays.
Dudley says many students have been in survival mode for so long, they have built a shell around themselves. “They don’t know how to handle someone who cares and loves them and is not expecting a paycheck from them.”
This scholarship program entails more than just supplying the financial means to attend college — the program encompasses learning life skills, building self-esteem and changing ingrained cultural, social and familial stumbling blocks.
Throughout the years, Dudley and Urist McCauley, mentor and director of technical services, have acted as surrogate parents. Students have temporarily lived with them or called in the middle of the night to be taken to the emergency room. Dudley and a staff of five guide the students through mountains of paperwork, academic and social pressures, and practical problems from how to dress for an interview to which fork to use at a nice dinner.
When Steven Tyree, an outstanding athlete and scholar who attended a small high school in Fayette, first went to the University of South Alabama, he had a hard time adjusting to a class with 300 students when his entire high school totaled 280 students. He turned to his mentors to stay grounded.
“They gave me advice about what to expect in the classroom and even tips on where to sit during classroom lectures. I was also assigned my own personal mentor that I could call at any time day or night and just talk, ” says Tyree.
He also struggled with choosing a major. Halfway through his first semester, he decided to reconsider pre-med. When McCauley asked him if he’d thought of engineering, Tyree says, “He didn’t know it but he had read my mind and we discussed it — the next day I changed my major to mechanical engineering and it has been the best decision I have made.”
The past decade the foundation has evolved and adapted to meet the students’ wide range of needs by implementing a study abroad program assistance network and providing professional seminars, full-time mentors, dorm packs and adequate room and board during the holidays.
The foundation also has learned from the past scholars’ experiences and input. Forty-one guidelines, all based on the students’ particular learning experiences, have been established. One guideline states that freshman aren’t allowed to join fraternities or sororities — it’s too expensive and too distracting.
According to a 2009 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 35 percent of employers’ full-time, entry-level college hires originated from their internship programs. In light of this, the foundation has encouraged students like Donald Morgan, a student at Alabama A&M pursuing a degree in urban planning, to work as an intern. He recently accepted an internship with the city of Huntsville’s Planning Division. He will perform demographic analyses and research design standards for the city’s 2035 long range plan.
Once students finish the program, says Dudley, they’ve transformed into polished, confident individuals who often matriculate to graduate school.
And they reach that point without college debt. Cynthia Wozow, a Smith scholar alumna and a first-year medical resident, said she is especially grateful that she could begin her medical studies debt free and concentrate on achieving her dream.
A true trailblazer, this great-granddaughter of Alabama governor B.B. Comer, who invented a special grass for horses, drove a 1976 Cadillac she named Gigi (Giant Green Gas-Guzzling Goddess), sailed the Chesapeake Bay on her 35-foot sailboat, planned a New Orleans-style party at the Birmingham Country Club on the occasion of her death, and requested her ashes be cast into the Chesapeake Bay, has left her mark on the future of Alabama.
This year, 62 Smith Scholars are enrolled in higher education. Since its inception, the foundation has helped more than 130 scholars.
Lanier Isom is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Text by Lanier Isom