By Cecily Markland
Dr. George N. Smith, a Mesa resident, longtime educational leader and faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, passed away December 10, 2014 at 87.
Dr. Smith’s son Scott, former mayor of Mesa, says until his father suffered a serious fall on December 9, he was mentally sharp and fiercely independent and had “lived by himself…in great physical health.”
Scott describes his father as “one of the most accomplished educators in the history of Arizona,” serving as superintendent of schools for nearly 35 years, first in Flowing Wells and then as head of Mesa Public Schools for 18 years. “He was a true leader who loved people,” Scott continues, adding that he was also exemplary in his private life.
“My dad was my best friend, my mentor, advisor, biggest fan and rock,” Scott says.
Born on February 11, 1927, in Safford, Arizona, George was the third son and youngest child of Howard and Lillie Smith. He graduated in 1944 from Thatcher High School, where he had excelled in sports and was recognized as one of the finest basketball players in the state.
George enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1945. At the end of World War II, he returned to Arizona and attended Gila College for a short time.
He and Mary Alice Ellsworth, who was from Safford, were married on June 3, 1947, in the Mesa Arizona LDS Temple.
George and Mary Alice moved to Utah, where George played basketball for the national powerhouse University of Utah and ultimately graduated with a degree in education. He later earned a master’s degree from Arizona State and an Ed.D at Stanford University and Arizona State.
His first job in education was in the small farming town of Arlington, Arizona. At only 22 years old, George served as head teacher/principal of the area school. Four years later, he was named superintendent of Tucson’s Flowing Wells School District. During his 14-year tenure, the district became nationally known for excellence. In 1967, George began his 18 years as superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District. Under his leadership, the district grew to become the largest in Arizona and won numerous state and national awards for excellence and innovation.
After retiring from the Mesa district, George served as an Executive Vice President of Northern Arizona University. In 1988, he left, becoming the Arizona dealer for one of the country’s largest school bus manufacturers.
During his long career, George received numerous awards and recognitions. For six years he served on the Arizona State Board of Education, he was founding president of the Arizona School Administrators, and was appointed twice by President Ronald Regan to serve on the President’s Intergovernmental Advisory Council on Education. At the time of his death, he was serving on the board of the East Valley Institute of Technology Foundation.
George and Mary Alice served for many years as ordinance workers in the Mesa Arizona LDS Temple. Mary Alice passed away in 2004.
George also was preceded in death by his parents; brothers, Howard. Jr. and James; sister, Mary Jarvis; and grandson, Mark Johnson. He is survived by daughters, Diana Thomas (Charles) of Mesa and Jennifer Johnson (Richard) of Bountiful, Utah, and sons, David (Laura) and Scott (Kimberly), both of Mesa, as well as 17 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren.
“My faith gives me comfort that my father is in a better place, but I’m going to miss him dearly…literally thousands of others whose lives he touched both directly and indirectly will also miss him,” Scott says. “I am so thankful he was my father.”