Robert L. Smith

February 25, 1934 - April 11, 2016
Kalamazoo, MI



Friday, April 22, 2016
6:00 PM to 8:00 PM EDT
Life Story Funeral Homes - Betzler
Kalamazoo Location
6080 Stadium Drive
Kalamazoo, MI 49009
(269) 375-2900

Food and drinks will be served.

Driving Directions


Saturday, April 23, 2016
11:00 AM EDT
First Presbyterian Church
321 W. South Street
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
(269) 344-0119

A luncheon will follow in the church hall.

Web Site


At the family's request memorial contributions are to be made to those listed below. Please forward payment directly to the memorial of your choice.

WMU Foundation
1903 West Michigan Avenue
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5403

The Robert L. & Carol Payne Smith Opera Enrichment Fund

WMU Foundation
1903 West Michigan Avenue
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5403

Jennifer, Katherine, Karen & Megan Smith Music & Theatre Students' Academic & Artistic Emergency / Special Projects Needs Fund


Below is the contact information for a florist recommended by the funeral home.

1830 S. Westnedge
Kalamazoo, MI 49008
(269) 349-4961
Driving Directions
Web Site

Life Story / Obituary


Dr. Robert L. Smith, longtime theatre director, actor, and teacher, passed away peacefully at home on April 11, 2016 after a long illness. In his favorite artistic role—as a theatre director—he directed nearly ninety productions, including 13 musicals and 4 operas, by the time he staged his final plays in 2014. During his sixty years as an actor, beginning with college productions at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), he performed major roles in nearly 200 plays. When he played the lead role in a professional production in Ann Arbor in 2007, the theatre critic for the Detroit Free Press declared him to be “the discovery of the year—which is ironic since he’s been an actor for 50 years, on the other side of the state.” The critic said his performance in the world premiere presentation of the play Language Lessons “strikes any number of perfect notes,” which is an apt description of the results he sought in every endeavor. As a director, actor, and college professor, he always set high standards for himself and others, devoted enormous energy to every theatre production, and consistently raised the performance levels of actors and college students. Just as he brought a unique passion to his professional endeavors in theatre, he also displayed similar devotion, care, and enthusiasm to his other off-stage roles as husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He will be remembered for his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, his friendly demeanor, and his generous spirit.

Dr. Robert L. Smith, known as Bob to his friends, was born on February 25, 1934 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the eldest son of Clifford and Esther Josephine (Burdette) Smith. His mother raised her three sons as a single parent in very difficult economic circumstances. From an early age, Bob loved school. He described the schoolhouse in West Virginia as a “refuge” from his family’s challenges. Throughout his childhood, school was the place where he could participate in a variety of activities, including athletics, music, and student government. His mother moved the family to Ohio in 1944. At Lorain High School, he discovered his passion for dramatics, debate, and forensics. His debate and forensics teacher inspired him to have confidence that he could attend college despite his family’s very limited financial circumstances. She was the first of several teachers who served as mentors to encourage him to pursue his dreams. Throughout his eventual career as a professor, Bob remained cognizant of how his teachers, professors, and senior colleagues had provided essential guidance and assistance. He sought to do the same for his students.

He enrolled at BGSU in 1952 and became actively involved in university theatre productions. He had leading roles in many plays on the main campus as well as at the university’s summer theatre program at the Huron Playhouse in Huron, Ohio. The highlight of his undergraduate years—and his entire life—was meeting the fellow BGSU student he would marry. He married Carol Payne Smith in September 1955 at the Frank Prout Chapel on the BGSU campus. In their sixty years of marriage, they raised three sons, served as professors in different departments at Western Michigan University (WMU), were leaders in local arts and civic organizations, and enjoyed international travel to such places as England, Russia, China, and Australia. They both have been long-time members of First Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo, and regularly served as volunteer readers for “The Late Show” at the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home.

Bob earned his B.S. in Education in 1956 and, with the encouragement of a treasured faculty mentor, remained at BGSU to earn his M.A. in theatre and speech in 1957. He spent one year teaching drama and debate at Port Clinton High School in Ohio where his debate and forensics students qualified to compete in the national championships. Bob enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa in 1958. Soon thereafter, he accepted an Instructor position at Hope College where he spent three years teaching speech and theatre. While at Hope, he transferred his doctoral credits to Michigan State University (MSU) and later he moved his family to East Lansing, where he taught courses as a doctoral student while working on his Ph.D. degree. In 1964, he came to Kalamazoo to accept a position as Director of the University Theatre and assistant professor of speech at WMU. He finished his Ph.D. from MSU during his first years as a junior faculty member at WMU.

Bob taught college courses for nearly forty years. In addition to teaching at WMU for thirty-three years prior to his retirement in 1996 as Professor Emeritus, he also served one-year stints as visiting professor of theatre at the University of Kansas, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Early in his career, in addition to teaching at Hope College and MSU, he also taught public speaking courses at Western Theological Seminary in Holland. Bob came out of retirement in 2004-2005 in order to direct WMU’s Master’s in Fine Arts program in Performing Arts Administration. He received the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Central States Speech Association.

Bob was well known for his work as a director and actor, not only in the Greater Kalamazoo area, but also in other parts of the Midwest. For example, he performed the title role in Shakespeare’s King Lear as a distinguished visiting artist at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri and spent five seasons with the Missouri Repertory Theatre, a professional Equity theatre in Kansas City, where he acted in ten productions and directed two plays. Between 1965 and 1999, he worked as a director or actor for eighteen productions in ten different seasons with the Kalamazoo College Festival Playhouse. He spent one season with the Wagon Wheel Playhouse in Indiana as an actor and three summers as a director at BGSU’s Huron Playhouse. He also performed professionally at the Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor and the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield.

At WMU, he initiated the presentation of plays written by African American playwrights. In all of his productions, he was a leader in color-blind casting that challenged audiences to be drawn into the text and performance of dramatic material without taking notice of the skin color of each performer, even with actors of various races playing siblings, spouses, offspring, and other members of the same family. His many memorable productions at WMU included musicals, dramas, comedies, and operas. He directed highly-praised productions of musicals, such as Man of La Mancha, Purlie, and West Side Story, in addition to dramas, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and King Lear. He enjoyed collaborating with colleagues who taught music and dance at WMU, especially in co-directing operas, including Gianni Schicci and Falstaff.

Throughout his 52 years as a resident of Kalamazoo, and especially during the 20 years following his retirement from WMU’s faculty, Bob remained very active directing and acting in productions with virtually every local theatre group. He staged productions at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, New Vic Theatre, Whole Art Theatre, and Farmers Alley Theatre. He also directed productions at Kalamazoo Central High School, the Battle Creek Civic Theatre, and the Marshall Civic Players. Bob served as the president of the Board of Directors of both the Civic Theatre and the Whole Art Theatre, and also served on the board for the New Vic Theatre. In addition, he was a proud member of three unions: Actors Equity, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and the American Association of University Professors. In 1999, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo honored him with the Medal of Arts for his extensive contributions to the cultural life of the community. In 2008, the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre presented him with the Larkin H. Noble Award for his lifetime of dedicated service to the Civic.

When he was interviewed in 2014 for a newspaper article about his final two productions, Boeing Boeing at the Kalamazoo Civic and Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the New Vic, he said: “My first love still is directing. I think it’s really because I’m a teacher. Helping people become better than they think they are….That’s kind of priceless.”

Bob was very proud of his family, especially the academic, personal, athletic, and professional achievements of his sons and grandchildren. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Carol Payne Smith of Kalamazoo and his three sons, Jeffrey of Chicago, Christopher (Charlotte) of East Lansing, and Timothy (Stephanie) of Kalamazoo. He is also survived by eight grandchildren: Jennifer (Christopher) Smith Kohler of Chicago; Katherine Smith of Chicago; Karen Smith of London, England; Megan Smith of Santa Monica, CA; Alicia (David) Smith-Tran of Shaker Heights, OH; Eric Smith of Palo Alto, CA; and Jordan and Colin Smith of Kalamazoo. He was thrilled to have two great-grandchildren, Addison and Cooper Kohler of Chicago. Two brothers also survive, William Smith of Columbus, OH, and Bevan (Fran) Smith of Amherst, OH, as well as a daughter-in-law, Susan Keller Smith of East Grand Rapids. He is also survived by sixteen adult nieces and nephews and their many offspring.

The family will receive visitors on Friday, April 22, 2016 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Life Story Funeral Homes-Betzler, 6080 Stadium Drive, Kalamazoo. A memorial service to celebrate the life of Dr. Robert L. Smith will be held on Saturday, April 23, 2016 at 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 321 W. South St., Kalamazoo. Memorial contributions can be made to either of two funds at WMU: The Robert L. & Carol Payne Smith Opera Enrichment Fund or The Jennifer, Katherine, Karen & Megan Smith Music & Theatre Students’ Academic & Artistic Emergency/Special Projects Needs Fund. Both funds are administered by: WMU Foundation, 1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5403.