Setting her own path

Gerd SmithGerd Smith was accepted to Washburn University in 1954 by accident.

Washburn had set up living arrangements for a male scholarship student from Sweden. They realized things wouldn’t work as planned when she attached a photograph with her paperwork.

Keeping their promise, Washburn officials scrambled and made proper arrangements.

“If I were named Barbara or Mary, I may never have gotten the scholarship,” Smith joked.

Smith, bba ’56, remembers how hard she had to work as a woman in America with a name like Gerd (rhymes with cared).

“I was so goal oriented. Nothing was going to stand in my way,” she said.

Competition motivated students in the all-girls school she attended in Sweden. Her graduating class had two future doctors, two engineers and a pharmacist. She spoke Swedish, German, English and French. Her parents studied in the United States and always spoke of how great America was. That gave her a desire to take her learning overseas.

Her name wasn’t the only thing that made people think she was a male before she arrived. She was a student-athlete in Sweden who wanted to study business. Sweden had physical education six days a week, but dance was one of the only activities available for women at Washburn. Females in Washburn business classes were rare.

Her Swedish education had her on track to graduate after two years but her scholarship was for just one year. She had to stay in school to keep her student visa, so she met with Bryan Stoffer, Washburn president, to solve the problem.

“I’ve never been the shy type,” Smith said. “I marched myself up to Dr. Stoffer’s office and asked if I could get another scholarship.”

Stoffer got back to her in a few days with the funds. She graduated the next year with a bachelor of business administration, and she began working.

She soon married and had two sons. Living in Chicago in 1972, she wanted more than the social scene the suburbs offered where women stayed home with the children.

“She tried to make it work but something was missing in her life,” said Chris Smith, her youngest son and a retired high school educator and coach in Erie, Colorado.

She applied at a major university in the area to earn a master of business administration. She had the grades and the experience, but this school, 18 years after Washburn accepted her, wouldn’t budge on a policy.

“They didn’t accept married women with children,” Smith said. “I was told they gave the spots to men so they could support their families.”

She walked out of there fuming.

“My mom had a lot of doors closed in her face,” Chris said. “But she was determined to achieve her goals.”

Gerd eventually got a master’s in counseling at a different school, Roosevelt University, and began teaching assertiveness workshops for women. The same university that rejected her MBA application asked her to give a workshop. She did so well, they wanted her to teach a class.

“I asked if I needed an MBA to teach,” Gerd said. They told her any master’s would do.

That was poetic justice to her.

“My mother taught us that whatever path we chose, we had to go get it,” said Greg Smith, her oldest son and an entrepreneur in the health and wellness field in Clovis, California.

Gerd worked 15 years as a financial officer at a communications company in Asheville, North Carolina, before retiring. She continued doing accounting for local businesses and individuals until 2005.

Smith, 83, gives back with an endowed scholarship at Washburn that provides others the same opportunities she earned. The scholarship influences future Ichabods, and the example she set influences her family.

“I’m proud of how she’s supporting her legacy by furthering opportunities for others. That means a lot to her,” Greg said.

“I have two daughters of my own,” Chris said. “I’ve always encouraged her to talk to them. She had the strength of character to buck some trends.”