Sunday, Jun 17, 2018
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William R. Smith, 1938-2012: UT theater prof master at design

William R. Smith, a master of theater set and costume design and a professor and confidant to students at the University of Toledo, died Sept. 14 in his Old West End home. He was 74.

He learned he had lung cancer about six weeks ago but had emphysema in recent years and was in declining health, said Jeanett Oleksa, a student of his in the 1970s and a friend since.

"Bill was absolutely a teacher from start to finish," said Ms. Oleksa, a costumer designer who for 22 years ran a New York City costume-rental business for industry professionals.

He cared about students and had them over for dinner and made sure they had a place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"The life lessons weren't just in the classroom," Ms. Oleksa said. "He was the first person that ever treated us as adults. One of the things we all learned from Bill Smith was an adult refills the ice-cube trays."

He retired in the late 1990s. He became a professor emeritus of theater in 1992.

"He was a complete theater artist," said James Hill, UT theater department chairman, who joined the department in 1980. "He was a very good mentor for me as a young designer."

When Mr. Hill directed the gala for the 1999 reopening of the historic Valentine Theatre, he entrusted Mr. Smith with costume and set design.

Ms. Oleksa said: "He really understood history and that really translated into his costumes and scenery and even into his [home] garden and design."

He could make the unattractive person beautiful and the stunning unattractive if the part called for it, said Jennifer Rockwood, a former student and theater department colleague. No costume detail was spared — hem length, heel height. All the better if he believed a piece required feathers, sequins, and use of a glue gun.

"Bill Smith taught me to be hyperobservant about what people wore and what that said about them," said Ms. Rockwood, now director of UT's "first-year experience" program. "Theater is supposed to be spectacle. And Bill knew what spectacle was."

Mr. Smith also directed plays and musicals at UT and for Toledo-area theaters, among them Cabaret, Bent, Equus, Candide, and Agnes of God.

He had a bachelor's degree in speech and theater from Indiana University and sang and toured with its choral group. He taught high school and was a Navy veteran. He had a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in scenery design. He was hired by UT in 1972.

Surviving is his brother, John David Smith.

A celebration of life service is set for 4 p.m. Nov. 3 at the UT Center for the Performing Arts. Tributes are suggested to the William R. Smith theater scholarship fund at the UT Foundation.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: or 419-724-6182.

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