Cmdr. Merle James Smith Jr., the first Black cadet to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy and the first African American officer to command a U.S. warship in close quarters combat, died last Wednesday. He was 76.
But family members say he didn’t think of himself as a pioneer.
“He was a really wonderful, wonderful man, who did his job as he saw fit to do his job, so therefore he considered all of his accomplishments as part of doing his job, as opposed to being a trailblazer or a pioneer,” said his wife, Lynda B. Smith. “He was very self-effacing in his personality, very humble, very gracious.”
She said he was “truly an officer and a gentleman.”
Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly said in an email to the academy community Sunday that Smith “served as a role model for countless cadets, faculty, and staff. His passing is deeply felt by everyone but his memory and legacy will live on in perpetuity.”
While giving the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in 2015, former President Barack Obama recognized Smith and said, “His legacy endures in all of you — because the graduating Class of 2015 is the most diverse in Academy history.”
The academy announced last year it is renaming its Military Officers Club after Smith, and Kelly said the academy will formally dedicate the Cmdr. Merle J. Smith Consolidated Club on Oct. 1. Smith also is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Smith’s son, Merle James Smith III, described his father as proactive, forward-thinking and supportive, and said Smith taught him from a young age not to quit. He said his father always told him, “You can’t always do the right thing but you should always just try, because imagine how much better the world would be if you just tried.”
The younger Smith said the Coast Guard “picked a person that could handle it, and that was not going to make the obstacles — the inherent obstacles — of the task be a reason to drop out or quit.”
In a Facebook post Monday, Merle Smith III said his father “remained my sounding board even after he lost the ability to communicate,” and kept his humor and humility despite the debilitating nature of Parkinson’s disease. Lynda Smith said her husband died June 16 at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital from complications of COVID-19 and Parkinson’s.
Smith also is survived by his brother, Thomas G. Smith; children Chelsea B. Smith of East Lyme and Danielle Smith of Silver Spring, Maryland; grandchildren Majani Smith and London Jones Smith; nieces and nephews.
A wake will be held at the Garde Arts Center on July 8 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. A funeral service will be held at the Coast Guard Chapel on July 9 at 3 p.m.
Humility as a pioneer
Merle Smith was born in 1944 in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of Jacqueline T. Smith and retired Army Col. Merle James Smith Sr. He grew up in Germany, Japan and elsewhere in the United States, ultimately graduating from Aberdeen High School in Maryland.
He had the chance to go to West Point or another military academy but ultimately chose to enter the Coast Guard Academy Class of 1966, in part due to the chance to play football under coach Otto Graham.
Smith’s first assignment after graduating with a degree in marine engineering was on the cutter Minnetonka, and he later served in Vietnam. He commanded the patrol boats Point Mast and Point Ellie, and earned a Bronze Star.
Smith then went to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., and attended law school at George Washington University, where he met his future wife. He and Lynda Smith were married for 47 years.
Merle Smith began teaching law classes at the Coast Guard Academy in 1975. Ret. Vice Adm. Manson Brown was a student in the mid-70s, and his first interaction with Smith was in one of Smith’s law classes.
“I just remember being struck by this image of a Black officer — one of the few that I’d ever seen, quite frankly — that gave me a vision for what my future could look like,” Brown said. Brown went on to become the first African American to achieve the rank of vice admiral in the Coast Guard.
Brown said he reconnected with Smith in the early ’90s, when he started making time to go back to the academy, and said Smith became a “lifelong mentor.”
“Whenever I’m in New London and I’m speaking to a group of cadets or a group of officers, and Merle is in the audience, I always point him out as a pioneer,” Brown said. “He was very humble about that.”
In 1979, Smith retired from active-duty service after 13 years — but served in the Coast Guard Reserves for another nine years — and joined the legal staff at Electric Boat. Lynda Smith noted he was one of only two Black general counsels for a Fortune 500 company at the time.
Smith also served on the boards of the Coast Guard Foundation, United Way, Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation and Amistad America.
It was through the Bodenwein committee about 20 years ago that Smith met Jerry Fischer, former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, and then Fischer asked Smith to be on the advisory board of the Federation’s Encountering Differences program. Smith was featured in the “Stories of Resilience: Encountering Racism” exhibit last year at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and the La Grua Center.
“He was also just a very quietly strong man,” Fischer said. “He would often be quiet and listen to a lot of discussion, and then he would speak toward the end of the discussion and say something very meaningful or very insightful.”
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