Community salutes D&E president

Harper-McNeeley Auditorium was packed Friday night with friends, family, faculty, students and community members offering “Notes of Thanks” to retiring Davis & Elkins President G.T. “Buck” Smith and his wife, Joni.

Buck Smith, who became D&E’s president in 2008, is retiring effective June 30. The college’s artist in residence, pianist Jack Gibbons, and friends from the community were featured at the reception in the Smiths’ honor.

D&E Chancellor/President Elect Michael Mihalyo welcomed those gathered for the event.

“We knew we at D&E were not alone, and thought this event fitting so folks could share their thanks with Buck,” Mihalyo said. “Choosing a concert with D&E Artist in Residence Jack Gibbons is a natural choice because Buck was instrumental in getting Gibbons at D&E. I think this is the best and truest way to honor Buck and thank him for all he does.”

Gibbons performed favorites from Bach, Chopin and Gershwin, as well as his own original compositions.

“One day, Buck and Joni came over to the house and they asked how my music was coming along,” Gibbons said. “My waste paper bin was filled with crumpled starts. I pulled one out and played a bit of it and they really enjoyed it. So I reworked the piece and finished it.”

Flutist Katy McClane accompanied Gibbons on two pieces. Sopranos Hillary Barlow and Danielle Riggins sang on two pieces as well.

“I was so taken by the amount of music in the Elkins community when I came here,” said Gibbons.

Two of Eloise Federer’s piano students, Aodhan Minney and Ellie Reed, both performed duets with Gibbons during the program.

“The community outpouring this evening is quite overwhelming,” said Mihalyo. “I don’t believe we could have had a better tribute to Buck and Joni.”

“This evening was just overwhelming,” Buck Smith said after the event.

Tucked away in each program for the evening was a “Notes of Thanks” page where people could write personal notes for the Smiths. Everyone dropped off their notes at the end of the program in boxes and baskets that were presented to the Smiths.

In the five years while Buck Smith served D&E as president, the college increased its full time enrollment by more than 50 percent, paid off all its external debt and completed more than $10 million in campus improvements.

His six-step game plan when he joined the college was to reduce expenses, recruit students, retain students, raise funds, renew programs and reach for new opportunities.

The Highlands Scholars program, implemented in 2009, offers students in a seven-county region surrounding the college an opportunity to receive a private college education at about the same cost as attending a public college or university.

The first year of the Highlands Scholars program, 16 students enrolled in D&E. This year, the program enrolled 287 students.

Half of the 14 graduates from Harman School this year were recipients of the Highlands Scholar program and will attend D&E in the fall.

“This year our first Highlands Scholars graduated from D&E,” Buck Smith said. “Ellis Wyatt, salutatorian of this year’s Davis & Elkins graduating class, told me he never would have attended college if it had not been for the Highlands Scholars. This program allows us to reach into the community and help the youth. They are our future. If anyone wanted to leave a legacy, this is it.”

In addition to the Highlands Scholars program during Smith’s years at D&E, the college has received nearly $25 million in support of academic programs, enhanced facilities and endowments. Capital improvements to the college include renovations to all five residents’ halls, and construction and renovations to the Robbins-Madden Fitness Center, Martin Field House, Myles Center for the Arts, Seybolt Golf Academy, Allen Athletic Fields and the Joni Smith Softball Field.

Smith’s official last day with D&E is June 30.