Smith Reflects on 28-Year Journey from Waiter to Admissions Director

Oxford native, fourth-generation employee to retire from university May 31

Whitman Smith, University of Mississippi director of admissions, will retire effective May 31 after 28 years at the university. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Whitman Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Ole Miss in 1989 and spent three days as a waiter at the Downtown Grill before he decided to jump ship for an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The Oxford native got a call from his alma mater and leapt at the chance to become an admissions counselor. Since his brief stint in the food service industry, Smith, UM director of admissions, hasn’t worked anywhere but Ole Miss since 1990, and hasn’t wanted to.

“They asked me if I wanted to know how much the job paid and I said, ‘I don’t care,” Smith said. “I was really excited. It was a job where you got paid to tell people how much you love Ole Miss, and tell them all the things about Ole Miss they could learn. It was great.”

But Friday (May 31) will be his last day as a staff member for the university he loves so much. Smith will retire after a sterling career with the Office of Admissions, which included presiding over a period of heavy growth at the university during the last 20 years.

Whitman Smith’s retirement reception at Bryant Hall. Photo by Megan Wolfe / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

He’s led efforts that bore record application, admission and enrollment growth, and conceptualized and implemented the new student convocation at the university.

“It’s been amazing and it’s been fast,” Smith said. “I will miss lots of different aspects of it. I’ll miss the people and the students. I will miss my colleagues. Working with them has been glorious. I will miss walking around the campus.”

Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks said Smith gave his all to Ole Miss. 

“We thank Whitman for his tremendous service to the university,” Sparks said. “He played an important role as a highly visible member of the university during a time of significant growth and advancement. Over the last quarter century, his passion and love for Ole Miss shone through in every aspect of his work.

Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor of student affairs, said Smith’s work will be remembered long after his retirement.  

“Whitman leaves a real legacy at Ole Miss,” Hephner LaBanc said. “He is one of the best recruiters on this campus and has been instrumental in the unprecedented growth of this university in recent years. His authentic style, directness and incredible wit will be sorely missed. I will miss him as a colleague, leader and student advocate.”

Smith said he’s enjoyed his job, a major portion of which has been overseeing efforts to pitch the university to prospective students and their families.

“It’s a big university with all the big stuff, and a little university with all of the little stuff,” Smith said. “It’s a good fit, with a good feel and a good size. There’s lots of opportunities for personal interactions with people and getting something very different here.”

Smith hands out popsicles to Ole Miss students during Welcome Week 2017. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Making the pitch often isn’t that tricky, he said.

“I think Ole Miss sells itself,” Smith said. “If you show up on the steps, you will immediately buy in.”

Smith was the 2017 winner of the Thomas Frist Student Service Award. He also holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ole Miss.

He takes pride in the fact that he is a native of Oxford, and also a fourth-generation employee of the university. His great-grandfather, Whitman Davis, was the librarian at Ole Miss, beginning circa 1927. His grandmother, Mary Winifred Davis Smith, worked as a housekeeping supervisor, and her husband, Beverley E. Smith Sr., worked at the medical school in Jackson as a professor of psychiatry.

His father, Beverley E. Smith Jr., was a graduate instructor here, and his mother, Beverly Francis Swaim Smith, worked as a secretary in the Lyceum.

His wife, Stacey Elizabeth Brown Smith, works as the administrative secretary for the dean in the College of Liberal Arts.

He’s always believed what someone once told him about life as an employee here.

“You get back what you put into it,” Smith said. “We are lucky to have lots of people who love working here, and have been here a long time. They have lots of institutional memory and they have camaraderie with the other employees.

“You can pick up the phone and ask for a favor and get some help pretty quickly. All of that benefits our students.”

He has no major plans on the horizon. Some 28 years and nine months in, Smith said it’ll be hard to adjust to spending his days somewhere else. 

“I don’t know anything else, so it is going to take me a little while to know what the world is like without the University of Mississippi being in my life every day,” he said. “It has been since I started here as an 18-year-old freshman.”