‘The opportunity to commemorate their passion’
Smith family $20 million gift to the Illinois Athletic Program largest ever
By Sean McDevitt
With some families, it doesn’t take long to figure out.
Within minutes of walking into their home or learning how they spent their Saturday, you know if the family is an Illinois football family. It may be memorabilia in every room (or one particular room). It may be how their weekend entirely revolves around kickoff times.
For the Smith family, it was unmistakable. Seven decades of unwavering support.
From good times and not so good times on the football field, Henry Dale Smith and his wife, Betty, and their four sons made Illinois football a family passion that continues today. It has culminated with the largest philanthropic gift the University of Illinois Athletic Program has ever received — $20 million toward the Football Performance Center, student-athlete scholarships and the University of Illinois School of Medicine.
“Incredible Sports Unity”
In the 1950s, Smith moved his family to Springfield, Illinois and created H. D. Smith Wholesale Drug in January 1954. In 2007, Henry Dale made his eldest son, Dale, Chairman and CEO. Additionally, Chris was named President and Chief Operating Officer. Dale and Chris ran the company, which had become the nation’s fourth-largest distributor to retail drug stores and health-care institutions, until earlier this year when AmerisourceBergen finalized their purchase of the company.
At the same time Henry Dale Smith was building H. D. Smith Wholesale Drug, the family became season ticket holders and began attending University of Illinois football games. Something the family did until he passed away in 2015.
“In fact, he passed on September 19, 2015, and on September 12 he attended the Illinois football game with Mom and all four sons,” said Chris Smith. “That’s not right up to the end, but it’s pretty close.”
Sports were prominent in the Smith household.
“We were pretty much a U of I family regarding being fans of college teams,” said Dale Smith. “When we were growing up, and when all of us were living together there was this incredible sports unity. It was 365 days of sports, and we would always be paying attention to different things. For example, we learned arithmetic from calculating batting averages. We followed basketball. However, Dad’s passion, far and away, was football and University of Illinois football especially.”
Of his four sons, only Chris attended Illinois.
“Father was very low key about where his sons went to go to school and let them decide,” said Chris. “I was told later by employees that the day after I told him I was going to the U of I, he went into the office and crowed, ‘I finally got one!’”
To hear Henry Dale Smith’s sons tell the story of how their parents got engaged, one might think they’ve heard this story a million times before. Of course, football plays a part.
The two met in college in South Carolina. Betty was enrolled at the University of South Carolina while Henry Dale was working on a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from The Citadel military college.
“The day they got engaged started up in Columbia with Mom and Dad going to watch a South Carolina football game,” said Chris. “When that was over they drove down to Charleston to see the Citadel football game. So after sitting through two football games in one day, Dad took her to a park overlooking the bay in Charleston, and he proposed. I guess he felt that any girl that would do two football games in one day was worth keeping.”
“Academics are important”
The Smith gift is threefold. A portion of the donation goes to the Carle Illinois College of Medicine; a part is designed for scholarships specifically for student-athletes who leave school early and want to return to finish their degree and lastly a part is for the new Football Performance Center.
The creation of the College of Medicine with ties to the Engineering school was particularly appealing to the Smiths.
Dale said, “There is a big sports medicine component within the football center, plus we are excited about what the engineering school and the medical school are going to be doing jointly. As a result, we think there will be a spillover effect into the sports area.”
“Their involvement in Illinois athletics spanned most of their adult life and remained constant over the decades through the good years and, if you’re an Illinois fan, some not so good years. However, that never deterred their enthusiasm for going to the games and rooting for the team. Father has passed. Mother still enjoys football. At this stage, the opportunity to commemorate their passion for Illinois football over seven decades seemed too good to pass up. It seemed like the right time, the right program, the right leadership at Illinois with Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith. It seemed like everything lined up.”
When the Smiths looked at making a gift as a family, there was a strong feeling of allocating a sum dedicated to academics for student-athletes.
“Not everyone can complete everything within the prescribed timeframe, so we are providing scholarship money to help those who aren’t able to do that,” said Dale. “Let’s face it, there are others, and I won’t mention the conferences, that don’t have the level of academic requirements that Illinois and the Big Ten have. So, first of all, it’s a tribute to the athletes we recruit. It was important to us. Academics are important. The value of the degree and the education are important. It’s the whole reason for being at the University of Illinois.”
“The opportunity to commemorate their passion”
The Football Performance Center, scheduled for completion before the 2019 season, is a state-of-the-art facility designed to provide student-athletes and coaches everything they need to interact, train, and prepare. Advanced sports medicine and expanded strength training are also included.
Not only did the Smiths see the Performance Center as a critical component in developing the football program, but the leadership was evident as well.
“I think we have a highly innovative and visionary athletic director,” said Dale. “He’s young, energetic. He was able to get Lovie Smith, and Lovie is an experienced, veteran coach who has an incredible record in his ability to generate a winning program and improving programs with very high integrity. He’s been able to recruit some outstanding coaches to work with him, and they are here with the same values and determination to put together an outstanding program.”
Chris sees the gift as honoring their parent’s passion.
“Their involvement in Illinois athletics spanned most of their adult life and remained constant over the decades through the good years and, if you’re an Illinois fan, some not so good years,” said Chris. “However, that never deterred their enthusiasm for going to the games and rooting for the team. Father has passed. Mother still enjoys football. At this stage, the opportunity to commemorate their passion for Illinois football over seven decades seemed too good to pass up. It seemed like the right time, the right program, the right leadership at Illinois with Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith. It seemed like everything lined up.”
“I think they should be remembered. They gave their heart and soul for all that time.”
Originally published at https://fightingillini.com on August 30, 2018.