A Single Dad And His Unlikely College Roommate

Jun 15, 2012
Originally published on June 15, 2012 1:33 pm

In 1996, Wil Smith enrolled as a freshman at Maine's Bowdoin College. At 27, he had recently finished serving in the Navy. But he set off for school with his 1-year-old daughter, Olivia, in tow. Now that she's a teenager, Olivia sat down with her dad at StoryCorps to look back on their "college days" together.

"I wasn't planning on having you as my roommate," Wil tells Olivia. "I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you, they wouldn't let me come to college. So, I hadn't mentioned it to anyone."

To help make ends meet, he got a job working at a Staples office supply store, as a cleaner on the night shift.

"I had to take you in with me at work sometimes and hide you in the closet," Wil recalls with a laugh. "I think I lost something like 27 pounds, just from stress and not eating, because I didn't have enough for both of us."

Wil played for Bowdoin's basketball team. During the 1999 and 2000 seasons, he was the team's co-captain. And to help him focus on his studies, he got some help from his friends.

"My basketball teammates were my first baby-sitters," he says. "I just remember coming from class, and there were four giant guys — and then there was this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room."

Olivia asks, "Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class? Or just having me in general?"

"I felt a little awkward, but never embarrassed," Wil says. "There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you and see you sleeping — and then go back to my studies."

Wil graduated from Bowdoin in 2000. He eventually became the school's associate dean of multicultural student programs, a post he kept for 10 years.

"My graduation day from Bowdoin is a day I'll never forget," he says. "You know, all of my classmates, they stood up and gave me the only standing ovation. "

"I remember walking up with you and having my head on your shoulder," Olivia says with a laugh.

"Yeah, the dean called both of our names as he presented us with the diploma."

"So, technically I already graduated from college," Olivia says.

"Nice try," Wil says. "The degree only has my name on it. So you still got to go."

Earlier this year, Wil Smith was diagnosed with cancer; he's now undergoing treatment for stage-three colon cancer. He also serves as the dean of community and multicultural affairs at Berkshire School in Massachusetts.

"I really admire your strength," his daughter says. "And I love you."

"I draw my strength from you," Wil answers. "I always have, and I still do."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, recording conversations between loved ones. Today the education of a single dad. His name is Will Smith, and he was 27 when he enrolled as a freshman at Bowdoin College in Maine. His age wasn't the only thing that set him apart from his classmates. When Will Smith set off for school, he had his infant daughter, Olivia, in tow. She's now a teenager. He's battling colon cancer, and just after that diagnosis, they sat down together to look back on their college days.

WILL SMITH: I wasn't planning on having you as my roommate. I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had you, they wouldn't let me come to college, so I hadn't mentioned it to anyone. And I got a job working at Staples cleaning at night and I had to take you in with me at work sometimes and hide you in the closet.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think I lost something like 27 pounds just from stress and not eating because I didn't have enough for both of us. My basketball teammates were my first babysitters. I just remember coming from class and there were four giant guys and then there was this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room.

OLIVIA SMITH: Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class or just having me in general?

SMITH: I felt a little awkward, but never embarrassed. There were times when the only way I could get through was to come in and look at you and see you sleeping and then go back to my studies, and my graduation day from Bowdoin is a day I'll never forget, you know? All of my classmates, they stood up and gave me the only standing ovation.

SMITH: I remember walking up with you and having my head on your shoulder.

SMITH: Yeah. The dean called both of our names as they presented us with the diploma.

SMITH: So technically I already graduated from college.

SMITH: Nice try.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: The degree only has my name on it, so you still got to go.

SMITH: I really admire your strength, and I love you.

SMITH: I draw my strength from you. I always have and I still do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Will Smith with his daughter, Olivia, at StoryCorps in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Their interview will be archived at the Library of Congress, and you can watch StoryCorps' newest animated film at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.