Smith's early experiences were varied and hectic; it was almost as if his entire life had been a constellation of random experiences to be made coherent by that office. Only thirteen when the war broke out, Smith worked for his father's newspaper, the Enquirer, until he entered the army at age sixteen. He was wounded three times, including one classic instance when a pocket diary stopped a bullet and saved his life. In the postwar period, he worked again for his father on the paper, then attended the University of Virginia for one session. When his father, Richard M. Smith, came to Randolph-Macon as professor of Greek in 1868, Young Willie matriculated at the college. He took the A.M. degree in 1873. After assisting an uncle, Albert Smith, in running Bethel Academy near Warrenton, Smith became professor of moral and mental science at his alma mater in 1882, then professor of Latin and Greek. In 1885, he was foremost in raising an endowment of $43,000, most of which (significantly in light of later developments) came from Lynchburg. One of his most important credentials for election as president was that his father had been a member of the board of trustees from 1858 to 1870. The elder Smith had been one of the group in the board who had pushed for the move to Ashland.
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Reprinted from Professor James Scanlon's Randolph-Macon College: A Southern History 1825-1967