Harry Smith: Man with a Mission

The Saturday Evening Post, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Harry Smith: Man with a Mission


A letter from Harry Smith soliciting a contribution for Central College in Iowa piqued my curiosity. Why was my favorite "CBS This Morning" co-host raising money for this little Iowa college? My goodness! As I read further, the letter explained that he's an alum. But why had this urbane, sophisticated, man-of-the-world fellow named Smith chosen little Central College in the middle of Iowa? When I went to school there, most of the out-of-state students had long Dutch-sounding names.

The school, long supported by the Reformed Church of America (Dutch Reformed as in Marble Collegiate Church and West End Collegiate Church in Manhattan), attracted trustees' children from New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other spotty Dutch enclaves where the early Dutch Reformed Churches had survived. Central's president recruited Dutch Reformed Church members' children with generous scholarships and work grants. Many of them were preministerial or premed students with missionary service in mind.

Harry Smith just didn't look like your typical Central College alum ... and with a name like Smith, how had he been recruited for Central College?

I visited him at the CBS studios to find out.

"This is the newsroom, and we keep in touch with all of our foreign bureaus over there," said Harry, who was a most gracious host, welcoming us to his on-camera workplace where he labors from 7 to 9 o'clock five mornings a week to bring us the news. "And this is where Dan Rather comes from every night."

Although his day began at 4 a.m., he was now relaxed and chipper as we settled down to talk on the sofa in his small, rather Spartan office.

First question: A Smith goes to Central in Iowa? How did that happen?

He surprised me by saying, "I am a Dutch kid. All of my grandparents are of Dutch ancestry. I grew up in the Reformed Church, and I played football in high school. I had a lot of scholarship offers but decided to go to Central because it seemed small and safe. It was great, the perfect place. I was there for four years. I majored in communications and theater and social science. I really thought I was going to the seminary or maybe to graduate school. But I didn't have the money to do either. So I worked for years in radio instead. From radio I went to public television and from there to the CBS affiliate in Denver. Then the network hired me to work as a correspondent for the 'Evening News.' After a couple of years, they brought me to New York to do this show, which as of today, I have been doing for five years."

After congratulating him on this milestone, I wanted to know how, with all the Dutch grandparents, he became a Smith?

"Easy," he said. "When greatgrandfather Smit, S-M-I-T, landed at Ellis Island and they asked his name, he said Smit, and they put an 'H' on it, and it has been Smith ever since."

"Now you were thinking of becoming a minister and you went to Central because you knew of it through your church?"

"Yes, and I knew about you long before you knew about me, because people who did well at Central--we sort of put those people on a pedestal. And gosh, I've known about you forever."

"Because of The Saturday Evening Post and the children's magazines?"

"Oh, absolutely," he responded. I was glad we had sent complimentary subscriptions to Central's library.

"Tell me about your days at Central. You're out front helping the school ... I'm impressed."

"Well, let's just say the best thing about it was for me to go there. I remember the premium they placed on learning. Here's the place ... have the run of it.... You can learn and sing and act and play football and all those things. So I tried everything I could get my hands on. I even went to Taiwan one summer to teach English.

"Kids come to me now wanting to know how to become a journalist or how to get into the news business. I always tell them to get a liberal arts education, because it gives you a taste of a lot of different things.

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