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New Scholarship Honors ‘Giant’ in the Theatre World With Deep Davidson Ties

by | Nov 24, 2022

Graham Smith ’77 in ‘Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem.’ Photo by Mark Garvin.


by: Danielle Strickland

Jordan Clark ’77 and Graham Smith ’77 chose their Davidson fraternity based on which line was the shortest. That’s how it worked in those days; students lined up in the basement of Chambers Building for the fraternity that interested them most. In fact, they saw the crowd, decided to leave and grab some lunch, and then picked the shortest line after they returned.

Through flickerball and intramural softball, shared living spaces, values and laughter, their friendship lasted a lifetime. It never mattered that the friends took very different paths after Davidson—one to theatre and the other to real estate investments. Clark and Smith remained in constant touch, always looking for opportunities to speak and to meet in Charlotte, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia or Lake Burton.

“Graham was dedicated to theatre, his craft, and he put everything he had into it,” Clark said. “He stole the show every time we got to see him perform. He was similarly dedicated to politics and his community. He and his wife, Audrey, would write hundreds of hand-addressed postcards encouraging people to vote for their chosen candidates. He felt very strongly about things but was light-hearted at the same time; he was just about the funniest—and most articulate—person I’d ever been around. I don’t think I’ve ever known someone who had a more reliable moral compass, either. Always in the right.”

Clark lost his best friend unexpectedly two years ago and, together with his wife, Patti, also a 1977 Davidson graduate and close friend to Smith, created the Graham F. Smith ’77 Scholarship to honor Smith’s life while supporting students at Davidson.

“Graham had a terrific curiosity and loved many things,” Jordan Clark said. “So while we considered making it a theatre scholarship, since that was the passion that turned into a career, we knew he wouldn’t want it limited in that way. He’d love to see someone benefit who’s the pre-med student who also gets exposed to theatre and also loves Flickerball. We wanted to support students who are curious about lots of things, just as Graham was.”

A Love for the Stage

At the time of Smith’s passing, a news article described him as “a giant” in the theatre world. It was his gift, and it was one he shared with Davidson College before making a career of it.

When one of the two leads in the Davidson production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” came down with mono three days before opening night, the director asked Smith to step in. The only problem: Smith had not been an understudy. 

“Starting from scratch, Jordan actually encouraged him not to do it,” Patti said. “He was afraid the preparation time was too brief for Graham to perform up to his own exacting standards. Graham then disappeared for three days and showed up on stage carrying the playbook, and I don’t think he referred to it even once. He had the blocking exactly right, the inflection exactly right. Many of our classmates would tell that story first, if asked to share something about Graham Smith.” 

Smith came by his talent naturally, with several creative family members who have deep ties to alma mater. Among them is his father, the late C. Shaw Smith Sr. ’39, who was a magician and “would cut his son in half regularly,” according to Jordan Clark. Brother Shaw is Davidson’s Joel O. Conarroe Professor of Art History, and brother Curtis is a 1972 graduate. Wildcat fans will find sister Nancy, a retired English teacher, running stats at the men’s basketball games. And niece Beth Gardner Helfrich ’03 inherited her uncle’s passion for performance, finding a home on the stage.

Smith’s acting career took him all over the country, but he performed most extensively with People’s Light and Theatre, North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and the Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Patti Clark says she will always remember a final visit with Smith in Pennsylvania, early in 2020, when the couple traveled to see him perform the role of Robin in “The Children.”

Finding Your People

The Clarks, who also share deep family ties to Davidson, met their first day on campus, when students were given one clue that would lead them to meet a fellow classmate. The student who completed the task first won a keg of beer for their hall. Patti’s clue led her to her future husband. She also won the contest.

“It was a fun time to be at Davidson,” said Patti Clark. “They decided to accept women for the first time, but they didn’t exactly know what to do with us. None of the doors had locks. It was very freeing. We both met our people at Davidson, including each other, and Graham is at the top of that list.”

While her husband recalls it more like “there were 88 women and 900,000 men on campus,” they agree Davidson was a wonderful experience and one they hoped to pass along to their children. 

Mom did some gentle nudging.

“When our oldest daughter was looking at colleges, I left a note on her desk listing the 11 Davidson professors I would never forget. Eleven. That’s a lot.”

She chose Davidson. 

Their second daughter chose Furman, but the Davidson tie is there. And, her name is Graham.

And their third daughter? She’s also a Furman grad, but her birth name bears a tie to the college, Suzanne Davidson Clark.

Jordan ’77 and Patti Phillips Clark ’77 with Will Fry ’25

Inaugural Scholar: Will Fry ’25

Sophomore Will Fry is the inaugural recipient of the Graham F. Smith ’77 Scholarship. His sister toured Davidson twice, and although he was in the younger brother role on those trips, the campus left an impression, and he knew then it would be at the top of his list someday. 

“I love the community, the location, the spirit … and I love that it’s Division I even though I don’t compete at that level here,” said Fry, who swam, ran cross country and rowed in high school. “I love to cheer for the teams, and I joined the club team for basketball.”

Fry, who came to Davidson from Lexington, Kentucky, expects to declare a biology major, with plans to pursue paths to become a physical therapist or physician assistant. 

Like the donors who have funded his scholarship, Fry has found his people at Davidson. He says he didn’t have a close group of friends in high school—more like several individual friendships—and the connections he has formed on campus with classmates and professors alike have exceeded his expectations. He’s even taken advantage of the Davidson alumni network, shadowing a doctor in Kentucky over the summer. 

“I’ve formed long-lasting relationships and have a very close group of friends. I’m very happy to be here,” Fry said. “It’s been great to know the Clarks and hear about their Davidson experiences, too, especially as someone who just started theirs. I’m really grateful for them.”

Read More

Graham Smith’s obituary recounts his passion for the stage and how he approached the work:

Graham Smith ’77

He loved to connect with his fellow performers, to reach every member of the audience, and to seek doggedly the authentic purpose of the play, knowing full well it was elusive, but therein lay the thrill of acting. Like musicians who don’t merely play the notes but seek to make music, Graham wanted to perform with actors who didn’t simply reiterate the lines but who sought the riskier stage atmosphere of letting the play evolve through newfound listening and reactions, hoping for richer, unpredictable but plausible nuances with every performance. The key to this ingredient in drama was to prepare thoroughly so that confidence and risk-taking prevailed, inviting change, vitality, and discovery. It made the play life-like, not simply staged. Graham was a stickler for understanding the play and gleeful to go down any rabbit hole that arose serendipitously. One goal was to perform the role of King Lear one-hundred times; he made it to sixty-two. Although difficult to choose but still daring to do so, he claims that among his favorite roles were Robin in The Children with People’s Light & Theatre, C.P Ellis in Best of Enemies with Florida Rep, and Mr. Webb in Our Town at People’s Light. 

Read the full text here, and a blog post by People’s Light theatre here.

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