Donations focus on library named for him
Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:43 p.m.
With his gifts to the University of Florida library system, former U.S. Sen. George Smathers helped improve the reputation and the future of the university as a whole.
"He knew that very fine universities have fine libraries," Dale Canelas, director of university libraries at UF, said of Smathers, who earned his bachelor's and law degrees from UF. "He wanted to assist UF to move into that company. He saw that improving that library would be a step toward that."
Smathers, who died Saturday in Miami at the age of 93, promised in 1991 to donate $20 million in the form of a bequest to benefit the UF library system.
"I wanted to support a part of the University of Florida that will, like my education, also stand the test of time," Smathers said in 1991. "The library, of course, is the core resource of a great university. It keeps the tradition of scholarship and learning alive as it also seeks to capture the constantly growing sum of human knowledge."
In the early 1990s, Canelas said Smathers also donated property to the university that was later sold for almost $2 million. The money was matched by the state and allowed the university to renovate Library East. In tribute, in 1994, UF renamed its libraries for Smathers, and ever since a low wall between University Avenue and the library has donned Smathers' name.
The renovation of Library East, Canelas said, created a perfect environment for the university's special collections area. "Our rare and unique materials that are in that stack will last for 500 years," she said.
About six years ago, Smathers again remembered the university's library system by providing a $1 million endowment. Canelas said the money helped provided funds when the state cut back the library system's book budget in 2001.
Smathers' gifts not only improved the university's libraries but focused attention on the need to care for the library system.
"It's hard to raise money for the library," said UF history professor David Colburn, UF's provost from 1999 until 2004. "Everybody recognizes it's important. Everybody who comes to the student body uses it." But when alumni make donations, the money goes to their colleges or other areas of campus life.
"George Smathers' gift really drew attention to the library and allowed us to do some things there," Colburn said.
Smathers earned his bachelor's and law degrees from UF within six years after he came to the university from Miami as a freshman in 1933.
While at UF, he played varsity basketball in 1934, 1935 and 1936.
"I was not the standout, but I got to be captain," Smathers told The Sun in 2003.
Smathers was elected UF student body president in 1937. He was also president of the UF debate team.
Smathers' portrait still hangs in the dining hall of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house on campus — the fraternity that was home for Smathers during his years at UF.
Those who knew Smathers' feelings about the university likely were not surprised by his generosity to the institution.
Smathers credited UF not only with his education but his success as a lawyer and a politician. He called his years at the university "with a few family exceptions, the happiest years of my life."
"It is, after all, our common parent, our mother and our father, so to speak. For here were born the friendships that have lasted a lifetime. If there is something to give, why not give it here?" Smathers said.
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@ gvillesun.com.
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