Dexter Edson Smith: Our First Alumnus

An engraving of the University of Iowa’s Old Capitol, as it appeared in the 1860s. Image courtesy of UI Special Collections.

The University of Iowa has conferred 378,186 degrees since its founding in 1847, according to the most recent count by the Office of the Registrar in June 2016. That includes 112,575 BAs, 13,377 MDs, 20,527 PhDs, and exactly one BS in mining engineering (one of many discontinued curricula for which UI granted degrees in centuries past).

An undated portrait of Dexter Edson Smith (1839-1928), who was the UI’s first alumnus. Photo courtesy UI Special Collections’ Fred W. Kent Collection.

But as we mined university history for our story on the 150th anniversary of the UI Alumni Association, it prompted a question among magazine staff: Just who was the very first Iowa alumnus?

The answer, it turns out, was even more colorful than we expected. The “original Hawkeye,” as he’s been called, was Dexter Edson Smith, the son of a pioneer minister who brought his family from Vermont to Iowa in the early days of statehood.

The February 1967 Alumni Review, which marked the UIAA’s 100th anniversary, described Smith’s place in the university’s history:

Dexter Edson Smith, 58BA, (that’s 1858) more or less started things rolling at the University of Iowa. He came to Iowa City with his parents in 1846—the year Iowa became a state—and stayed long enough to become the university’s first graduate 12 years later.

For five years, because of a finance-caused university shutdown, Smith was the only graduate. But the fledgling university was soon back on its fiscal feet and, in 1867, a small group of far-sighted graduates formed the University of Iowa Alumni Association.

Dexter Smith never did join the association. Nobody seems to know why. But, undaunted by this minor setback, the association flourished.

After graduation, Smith was a teacher in Missouri and New York, and, following in his father’s footsteps, volunteered for the American Sunday School Union, according to an article in the October 1911 Iowa Alumnus. He married in 1860 and taught in Virginia and North Carolina for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that helped former black slaves and impoverished white Southerners after the Civil War.

He returned to New York in 1867, where he worked as a photographer. In John C. Gerber’s A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa (UI Press, 2005), Smith is described as leading “an unusually varied life.” A few years after graduation, Smith joined the Oneida Community, a religious commune in New York. In 1881, he struck out for Santa Ana, California, where he became a prominent citrus farmer and civic activist who was involved in the development of Orange County.

The October 1911 Alumnus included a profile of Smith:

He has always been a man of more than average intellect and now, at the good old age of seventy-three, in the best of health and spirits, he is living in Santa Ana, California, where he forms one of a band of loyal alumni, dividing his time between horticulture and the study of economics, physical culture, and religion.

Smith sent a greeting to the Alumnus that it printed in October 1919, along with a photograph of his California home that he called “among some respects, the most unique house in the world.” With the exception of the frame, roof, and doors, he said, the entire house was built by his wife, Ellen, who mixed the mortar, laid every brick and stone, and constructed its cabinets and chimneys. As Smith described it, the house was clad in cobblestone, which was inlaid by shells and pebbles Ellen had collected for decades.

The October 1922 Alumnus carried another dispatch from Smith, who was now in his 80s and blinded from an unspecified accident two years earlier. Even so, Smith was able to pen a letter that ended, “Yours for education.”

When Smith turned 85, UI President Walter Jessup sent him a letter of congratulations, writing: “With best wishes for your health and happiness for many years to come.”

The September 1924 Alumnus included one last update on Smith, who reported that he was still nimble enough to teach his granddaughter, Violet, a thing or two about dancing. His secret was simple: “Work more and eat less.”

Smith died in 1928 at age 89.

Read more about UI’s first alumnus in this 2012 article by university archivist David McCartney.

Josh O’Leary, Iowa Alumni Magazine

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