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Robert L. Smith, who led Sidwell Friends School, dies at 96

Robert L. Smith plays chess with students while he was the headmaster of the Sidwell Friends School. (Sidwell Friends School)
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correction

An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported the year Mr. Smith retired as executive director of the Council for American Private Education. He retired in 1989. This obituary has been corrected.

Robert L. Smith, a progeny of nine generations of Quakers, author of “A Quaker Book of Wisdom,” and headmaster of the elite Sidwell Friends School for 13 years, died May 24 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 96.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said a son, Geoffrey Smith.

From 1965 to 1978, Mr. Smith was headmaster of Sidwell, a pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade private school with alumni who have traditionally included the sons and daughters of the capital’s powerful and influential families, including the children of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But Mr. Smith prided himself on knowing the names of all 1,000 students on the campuses in Washington and Bethesda.

As headmaster, Mr. Smith presided over an effort to increase the number of Black students at the school, which graduated its first African American in 1967. He eliminated the remnants of an unofficial quota on Jewish students.

Mr. Smith was said to have stressed the Quaker values of simplicity, plain-speaking and self-effacement. When he stepped down, he told The Washington Post it was because he thought he had stayed long enough. At his farewell ceremony, a Quaker-style meeting, he told the assembled crowd, “We are surrounded in this room by books and friends, and outside the support of nature at her most smiling and beautiful, and the world itself.”

Robert Lawrence Smith was born in Moorestown, N.J., on June 10, 1924. His father was a salesman.

He attended Harvard College for two years, then broke with Quaker traditions and served in the Army during World War II, including combat operations during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in the winter of 1944-1945.

“I say it with sorrow, as a Quaker,” he told The Post. “But since I felt as I did about Hitler, I thought it would be more immoral for me to be a conscientious objector — that would be more immoral than anything I could possibly do as a soldier.”

After the war, he attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania, then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated in 1949. He received a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1952, and he was a dean at Columbia until 1965.

After leaving Sidwell, Mr. Smith was a consultant and adviser to members of Congress and executive director of the Council for American Private Education, a coalition of more than 33,000 elementary and secondary schools. He retired from the council in 1989.

Eliza Hamm, whom he married in 1948, died in 2009. Survivors include three children, Susan Bastian of Bethesda, Katie Smith Sloan of Washington and Geoffrey Smith of Hingham, Mass.; and eight grandchildren.

At Sidwell, Mr. Smith developed a nonconfrontational style of leadership. When someone espoused what he thought to be a bad idea, he usually replied, “I don’t know that that thought would ever have occurred to me.”

His book, “A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense,” was published in 1998. But he also saw limits to common sense.

When a colleague advocated a “common sense” approach to a difficult problem, he was overheard to say: “I’m not sure I have much faith in common sense. Common sense tells us the Earth is flat.”

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