Young Mr. Smith Goes to College |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 1999; Page A01
ASHLAND, Va., Sept. 6 –– At precisely 8 a.m. today, Gregory Smith -- boy genius -- strode across the rain-soaked campus of Randolph-Macon College, his mom and dad in tow.
It was the first day of the fall semester at Randolph-Macon, and Greg, a 10-year-old who only three years ago started second grade, was eager to begin his freshman year. He had a carefully picked course load of 17 credits, including Calculus I, Physics, French III and the honors course Warfare in Antiquity.
But Greg wasn't going to be allowed to sit in his first college classroom without a preliminary news conference. So he paused for photographs and public small talk with Roger H. Martin, president of Randolph-Macon, who declared Greg "an exceptional young man."
Chest out, chin up, Greg, who stands 54 inches tall, had to look skyward to talk to Martin.
"Today's one of the most exciting days of my life," said the poised boy with the mop of whitish-blond hair, whose official biography states that he plans to have three PhDs by 33. "Ever since I was 4 years old, I dreamed of starting college."
For Greg's parents, Janet and Bob Smith, Randolph-Macon was the right choice because of its "peaceful" environment and a faculty devoted to working closely with students. (The school also threw in a full, four-year scholarship, worth roughly $70,000.) In return, Randolph-Macon enrolled a student who already has appeared on "David Letterman" and whose exploits are likely to continue attracting attention to the 169-year-old school at least until he's a teenager.
Long before he began to dream of college, Greg's parents sensed they had a very unusual child. Today, Janet Smith, 46, described early signs of what was to come: memorizing and reciting books at 14 months; adding numbers at 18 months. In an IQ test at 5, Greg "tested off the bell curve," she said.
In one year alone, Greg went from second grade to eighth grade, skipping third grade altogether and completing an Algebra 1 course in only 10 weeks. He was just 7. He flew through the high school curriculum in 22 months.
Greg is the Smiths' only child, and they have remade their lives to accommodate his unique gifts. The Smiths have sold their homes and moved twice -- first from Pennsylvania to Florida, and then last summer to a small subdivision near Charlottesville -- in pursuit of what they believe to be the best educational opportunities for their son.
Bob Smith, 46, a microbiologist with a master's degree from the University of Maryland, gave up a research job with a pharmaceutical firm in Pennsylvania, and Janet Smith left behind her work as director of her own arts center in Lititz, Pa., which offered classes in ballet, tap, jazz and baton twirling.
The family moved to Jacksonville after a nationwide search for a school system that would agree to let Greg advance through school at his own speedy pace. The Smiths arrived without any jobs lined up. Bob Smith later found employment as a teacher at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, and now with a publishing house in Virginia. Janet Smith stayed home and became Greg's "full-time advocate."
"We've made some major changes," Bob Smith said. "I don't really call it a sacrifice. To me, every possible change is a new door to a new opportunity."
Their son is believed to be the youngest person ever to graduate from a public high school in Florida. The Smiths took what they called a calculated risk in allowing their son to move rapidly through school. "It's not an easy thing to do," Bob Smith said today. "It's difficult to watch your child grow up so quickly."
The parents said that they weighed their child's need to be a child vs. his need to fulfill his potential -- and school always came out ahead.
About two or three years ago, Bob Smith said, "word got out" that there was a genius in the midst of the other students at Fleming Island Elementary School in Jacksonville. Greg began receiving attention from the national media. A biography compiled by Randolph-Macon College shows that in 1998 he made appearances on "60 Minutes," the "Today" show and "NBC Nightly News" as well as the "Late Show with David Letterman."
A media-shy boy could be shellshocked by all the attention, Bob Smith allowed. But he said that his son, whose goals include developing space colonies and becoming president of the United States, thrives on the attention.
Greg, Bob Smith said, also has a message he wants to spread about nonviolence.
"Gregory loves to talk to the public," Bob Smith said. "He has an agenda. It's fun for him. When it stops being fun for him, we try to be attuned to that. Then it will stop."
Greg said today that he arrived at college ready to make new friends. "As long as the other kids don't bend my morals," he said, "whatever they want to do I try to go along with."
Under Greg's moral code, for example, recreational burping is intolerable.
The young Smith also won't keep anyone as a friend who likes violence in music or movies. It's family policy to walk out of any movie after the third cuss word is heard, Bob Smith said.
The Smiths have said in interviews that Greg has some, but not many, friends his own age. For the senior prom, he took his mom. He will play with other children for a while, but then it gets boring. He'd rather be reading and learning.
When the decision rolled around about where to send Greg to college, Randolph-Macon, which was founded by Methodists in 1830, scored high, Bob Smith said.
"It's going to be different than Orange Park High School," Greg said. "It's a nice small community that gives lots of interaction with the students. I think that's very important."
Most of the people on the 116-acre Ashland campus today were Birkenstock-wearing teenagers and twenty-somethings. Adult reporters who asked Greg whether he was concerned about making it through freshman year as a 10-year-old were met with a world-weary response: "Not in the slightest bit." Unlike the other freshmen, who are required to live on campus, Greg will be going home every night.
Then he was off, gleefully sprint-walking across the leafy campus toward the physics building, his Kelly green polo shirt tucked smartly into pressed khakis, a hand casually placed in a pocket, his brown leather loafers spit-shiny.
College officials said that they anticipated a great deal of media interest in Greg's arrival, so they decided to manage the dozen or so reporters and photographers who came to campus by scheduling news conferences before and after Greg's first day of classes.
"He and his family both expressed the desire to be treated as a regular student, but we knew he would attract some attention, so we wanted to isolate that period when the press had access to him," said Dean of Admissions John Conkright. "We didn't want to disrupt his day or the day of the 400 other students who are here for their first day."
For the first class of his college career -- physics -- Greg took a seat right in the middle of a U-shaped arrangement of tables, a pen at the ready for note-taking, eyes alight in anticipation of learning.
Several hours later, Greg and his parents were in high spirits as they gathered for a closing news conference, his father allowing that he was "one proud dad," his mother sitting at the dais, beaming. Greg looked as fresh as if the day had just begun.
"I believe I've been given a special gift," he said, "and I don't know how or why I've been given it, but I want to use it to the best of my abilities to help mankind."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company