IWP Chairman Emeritus Owen T. Smith passed away on April 11, 2023. The piece below is written by Dr. John Lenczowski, IWP Founder, President Emeritus, and Chancellor.
Is it possible to be sorrowful but also wear a smile? That is how I feel when I think of our dear departed Chairman Emeritus, Owen Smith. Owen joined our Board of Trustees as Chairman in 2004 and after the retirement of our first Board Chair, Ambassador Faith Ryan Whittlesey. He served in that position for 15 years – a stretch that marked the achievement of critical milestones in the development of IWP.
Owen brought experience and expertise in so many areas relevant to our work at IWP, it is hard to catalog them all. They included: running businesses, electoral politics, law, academia, academic accreditation, state and local government, public policy, real estate, foreign policy, and intelligence.
Owen was the son of an entrepreneurial family that ran several restaurants in Long Island. He continued that tradition by running the George Washington Manor, an historic restaurant dating back to the days of the founding of the Republic. Another was the Milleridge Inn, the largest restaurant in New York State. Owen could serve Thanksgiving dinner to 4,000 diners! When on the phone with him one day, he told me that he just finished ordering 750 pounds of corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day lunch and dinner! It was only from great experience that he could specify such a quantity. The Milleridge also had an amazing history: its original rooms date back to 1672. In addition to its vast dining and wedding facilities, it also had a “village” of gift shops – whose merchandise was mostly chosen by Owen’s wife, Bernadette.
I have learned from former senior corporate executives that both restaurants and academic institutions have more moving parts than many large corporations. So, Owen’s experience in the restaurant business was surely good preparation to deal with the myriad of complexities in running our own academic institution, small as it is.
A graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, Owen spent much of his professional life as an attorney. Part of that was in a company publishing books in business law in collaboration with William J. Casey, the Manhattan attorney and former chief of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operations in Europe during World War II, who eventually became Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, head of the Export-Import Bank, Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, President Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, and Director of Central Intelligence. It was through this association that Owen met Mr. Casey’s daughter, Bernadette, whom he eventually married.
From his earliest days, Owen was involved in electoral politics, working closely with longtime New York Congressman Leonard Hall. It was from that experience that he developed expertise in elections and in evaluating public opinion polls. This association eventually led to his service as the deputy county executive of Nassau County, NY and chairman of the New York State Board of Elections and of the Nassau County Planning Board.
For many years, Owen served as a professor at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University (LIU), where he was Chairman of the Finance Department. In that capacity, he was the principal author of a re-accreditation self-study – a massive analytical product involving an institution-wide evaluation of its administrative and educational outcomes effectiveness, the identification of weaknesses, the description of strategic plans for self-improvement, and budgets to support those plans. This experience proved to be enormously valuable to our efforts to win initial accreditation. In addition to teaching at LIU, Owen also taught at West Point.
When President Reagan was elected, Owen was eligible for a senior position in the new Administration. He was offered the Directorship of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but for various reasons declined the offer. He nonetheless became increasingly involved in the Administration’s work, as his now father-in-law, Bill Casey, had taken on the directorship of the CIA and the entire intelligence community.
Among the stories Owen liked to tell about those years was the time Mr. Casey called him and asked if he knew about Gestetner mimeograph machines (devices unknown to today’s younger generation, as I have learned from my students!). Owen said “yes.” Mr. Casey then said: “Go buy fifty of them!” And Owen asked: “OK, but what should I do with them?” Mr. Casey replied: “Send them to the Vatican!” Several years later, the former head of the Polish Solidarity Trade Union who became the first President of post-Communist Poland, Lech Walesa, came to IWP to deliver a lecture. Owen asked him if knew anything about those mimeograph machines, and Mr. Walesa replied: “Oh sure! We picked them up at St. Brigida’s Church!” Those copying machines were part of the U.S. covert action plan to assist the Solidarity movement’s resistance to communist rule by enabling its members to print newsletters and other materials to communicate with one another. Whether they were paid for by Mr. Casey personally or by U.S. government covert action funds remains unknown.
Owen’s work with Mr. Casey put him in touch with many people at the CIA, some of whom he brought to our precincts at IWP both to teach and to deliver major addresses at public events. One of them was the longest-serving CIA officer, Ambassador Hugh Montgomery, who was one of our Commencement speakers.
Owen’s association with the Casey family also brought IWP one of our most prized possessions: the William J. Casey Library. Although I knew Mr. Casey from my work in the Reagan National Security Council, I was introduced to his late, saintly wife, Sophia, in the early days of IWP. She received me in the library at their historic home in Roslyn Harbor on the shore of Long Island Sound. When she went to get me some tea, I had a chance to study Mr. Casey’s library. It was one of the most magnificent collections of books on international relations, strategy, war, and intelligence that I had ever seen. Casey was an avid bibliophile and bought and read books everywhere he travelled. Soon after that, I met Owen and Bernadette and eventually invited Owen to join our Board. After Sophia passed away, Owen and Bernadette donated Bill’s library to the Institute. The original idea was to distribute the books throughout our library holdings. But we decided to keep the Casey collection intact – as it is an amazing portrait of a mind. Students who visit and use the collection get a good idea of the kind of intellectual capital one must seek if one wants to rise to the top in a profession, like intelligence, that so many of our students wish to enter.
Owen’s experience in academia included serving as Vice Chairman of Molloy College in Long Island, where he learned about the vicissitudes of administrative management software for small colleges. We had been urged, if not required, by our accreditors to acquire one such system. One of the competing versions was a system that Molloy had adopted, which proved to be disastrous. It utterly failed to send out tuition bills and caused the college considerable financial difficulties – an administrative failure that outraged Owen and others on the Board. Owen told us that before that system was installed, the college had a perfectly well-functioning system. It was called “Sister.” “Sister” was the nun who had a box of index cards, each with a student’s name and whether he or she had paid tuition. “Sister” never failed!
Owen also was involved with several other non-profit organizations including service on their Boards, where he gained enormous experience in Board operations, Board relations with management, and philanthropy. One of those organizations was the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, with its faculty of Nobel Laureates. Others included the Reagan Ranch Board of the Young America’s Foundation, Christendom College, his local parish, and the Irish seminary in Maynooth.
Those experiences helped guide Owen in his leadership in re-writing IWP’s Bylaws, the development and adoption of our Charter, the construction of our five-year Strategic Plans, the selection of a new independent auditing firm, running the Board’s Executive Committee, and the hiring of several senior executives, including our first Chancellor, former Director of Central Intelligence, James Woolsey.
Owen and Bernadette have long run the Sophia and William J. Casey Foundation and have been extraordinarily generous to our cause at IWP. That work helped inform his role in guiding our first major fund-raising effort – our 25th Anniversary Campaign, which we had to launch, even though we were not fully prepared to do so. This was because our campus buildings were put up for sale, and we had to grab the opportunity. The campaign was remarkably successful, and it enabled us to put a significant down payment on the property. Owen’s expertise in public finance helped guide us through the process of securing D.C. Municipal Bond financing at a 2.3 percent fixed rate.
Owen also put his stamp on our academic programs. He was the earliest advocate of a doctoral program, which we successfully launched in 2017. He also urged us to offer an Executive Master’s degree program, which we successfully launched in 2014.
Owen was one of the biggest-hearted and gentle human beings I have ever known. Generous, soft-spoken, courteous, and decent to everyone no matter what their station in life, he was the perfect gentleman and scholar. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was full of anecdotes that lightened up the atmosphere everywhere he went and worked. He was as proud as could be of his association with Bill Casey and the Casey family, while possessed of an unaffected humility. He loved God, his Bernadette, his neighbor, and his country. And he will be missed by all of us who loved him.