For their significant roles in bringing California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) to the City of Carson, former Carson Mayor Gilbert “Gil” Smith will receive and former California Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown will be honored posthumously with the Founders’ Award during the university’s Founders’ Dinner on Oct. 8.
The Founders’ Dinner is part the university’s year-long 50th Anniversary Watts Rebellion Commemoration. It will recognize the rebellion by highlighting the university’s role as a catalyst for change in its aftermath, and by honoring those who have made an impact in the community.
Brown was the 32nd California Governor, serving two terms from 1959-1967. He was a strong supporter of CSU Dominguez Hills. In 1965 he called for its permanent site to be located close to the underserved communities impacted by the Watts Rebellion.
Born in Los Angeles, Smith moved to the Carson-Dominguez area 52 years ago with his wife, Shirley. He was a pivotal figure in the founding of the City of Carson, serving as first chair of the Citizens Committee for the Incorporation of Carson, which began to organize in late 1963 as a formation of voluntary discussions groups among homeowners.
“The committee was not just trying to move for incorporation, but discover an identity that best fit our area. In trying to develop a cohesive and unified community, it required the work of all us interested in being involved in the city,” said Smith. “Among our efforts and part of the community discussion were items related to city services, access to facilities, existing institutions in the area, and a location for a state university.”
Smith has always been a strong proponent of academic excellence, opportunity and access. His passion for his city and desire to create educational opportunities in the South Bay made him a zealous leader in the successful campaign to build CSUDH.
“Our incorporation efforts included buy-in from the Dominguez-Carson-Watson family. They owned everything that was considered a potential site in the area for a state university,” said Smith. “We were working with them to gain the family support for incorporation, and they became part of our effort to get the CSU Board of Trustees to select the Dominguez Hills site.”
By May 1965, plans to purchase land in Palos Verdes to build a new college had been abandoned due to the rising cost of land, and four promising alternative sites had been proposed, including Dominguez Hills. However, on August 11, 1965, the Watts Rebellion broke out. The ensuing rebellion and fires devastated much of the largely African American community.
“We made the proposals to locate the university at its current site in the spring of 1965, and another in November of 1965. In between the proposals, the Watts Revolt occurred,” said Smith. “Fortunately, a proposal had been submitted before the revolt and we felt good about the Dominguez Hills location because we had support of the Dominguez family.”
A week later, as the smoke began to clear in Watts, Governor Pat Brown, with the support of the CSU Board of Trustees that had been presented the citizens committee’s proposal, decided Dominguez Hills was the best choice to locate the new college.
The site was officially selected in October 1965 and CSUDH opened its doors as California State College, Dominguez Hills in 1966 adjacent to the current site of the university with 20 faculty and 180 students. The permanent campus opened in October 1968 just five miles away from where the Watts Rebellion began, and the same year the City of Carson was incorporated in February.
Smith became a founding member of the Carson City Council, where he served for 13 years, including two years as mayor (1970-71 and 1974-75). He returned in 1998 to help lead Carson as interim city manager.
Smith’s more than 50-year commitment to CSUDH is well reflected through his volunteer service with the Division of University Advancement, the College of Business Administration and Public Policy, the College of Education, and the Department of Theatre and Dance. He has also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council.
His interest and loyalty to CSUDH is also highlighted by his family’s financial support, such as the establishment of the Gil and Shirley Smith Scholarship, and his wife’s founding of the Women and Philanthropy organization on campus, which is dedicated to the mentorship of students by professional and successful women.
“Giving back to CSU Dominguez Hills is very important to me and my wife. I’m a founder of the university, so I’ve always felt it was important to be involved as part of this community,” he said. “As a way to not only give back, we decided that—in our limited manner—we wanted to offer scholarships in different areas.”
Smith commitment to civic leadership has been felt far beyond the City of Carson. His governmental experience includes serving as president of the Los Angeles Division of the League of California Cities; executive committee member for the Southern California Association of Governments; sitting on the Board of Directors for the California Contract Cities Association; and service on several state and National League of Cities committees.
Smith has also served as a board member of the United Way, the American Red Cross, the Emergency Preparedness Commission for L.A. County, and with many other organizations.
“We all live here. This is our home. Thank God I’ve had the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities,” said Smith. “It’s the responsibility of all of us who believe in our democracy to get involved and use our experiences to contribute, because we all gain knowledge and abilities from the life experiences we’ve had.”