On Sunday, June 6, during the Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2021, Gonzaga President Rev. Stephen Planning, SJ will award alumnus John Gabriel Smith '54 a Doctor of Humane Letters. The tradition of awarding honorary degrees stems from the fact that Gonzaga is still legally incorporated as a college.
Gonzaga was founded as the Washington Seminary in 1821 as a part of Georgetown University, then known as Georgetown College. When Gonzaga separated from Georgetown College in 1858, the Washington Seminary was reincorporated by an act of Congress and became known by the legal name, “The President and Directors of Gonzaga College.” This is still the legal name of the school. Gonzaga stopped awarding college degrees around 1900, choosing to focus solely on its high school program. This is why Gonzaga is called “Gonzaga College High School.” Gonzaga is one of the only high schools in the United States that still functions under a congressional charter.
On rare and special occasions, Gonzaga awards honorary degrees to outstanding alumni or community members who embody our Jesuit ideals and mission. On June 6, Father Planning will award the only honorary degree of his tenure to Gonzaga's first African American graduate, Gabe Smith '54. Mr. Smith arrived on Eye Street in 1950, four years before the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. A scholar-athlete, he made friends and studied hard, matriculating to Howard University and then pursuing a career as a pharmacist. As a loyal alumnus of 67 years, he has remained devoted to his alma mater and his classmates, and has served as an inspiration to all Gonzaga students. The Gabe Smith Portal to Buchanan Field, which was unveiled in 2017, reads:
In recognition of John Gabriel Smith, Class of 1954, the first African-American graduate of Gonzaga. This entrance, made possible by the generosity of Onyx alumni, serves as a tribute to Gabe and an enduring symbol to young men—of all races and ethnic backgrounds—who follow in his pioneering footsteps on Eye Street.
In speaking about his decision to award this degree to Mr. Smith at this time, Fr. Planning said, “The lifelong successes of Mr. Smith are first and foremost a testament to his exemplary personal character. He paved the way for generations of minority students who would follow him. He is a man for all Eagles to admire and emulate. However, his story says a lot about Gonzaga. Our school was willing to be a leader in racial integration before the rest of the country. His teachers, coaches and classmates welcomed him with open arms when other schools might not have. I am humbled to be able to award him this honor on behalf of the school.”