A Calhoun County native played a key role in giving the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College a valuable lesson about Texas-size gifts – the kind that can change lives.
The speaker at their graduation ceremony, billionaire Robert Smith, said he and his family would cover the cost of all of the 396 graduates’ student debt.
Attached to the gift is former Crossroads resident Hope Dworaczyk Smith, Robert Smith’s wife, who grew up in Seadrift and in Port Lavaca before eventually becoming a supermodel and philanthropist.
Today, Smith and her husband are behind major donations to nonprofits, schools and other civic institutions throughout the country. During his speech at Morehouse, the private historically black college in Atlanta, Robert Smith made his surprise announcement that his family would pay off all student debt for the 396 graduates. Smith also gave $20 million to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The Austin billionaire is the richest black man in the U.S., with a fortune that Forbes estimates to be worth $5 billion. He founded the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners.
Unlike her husband, Hope Smith started her career locally. She was named Miss Teen Texas in 2000, according to the Victoria Advocate archives, after which she represented the Lone Star State in the nationwide Miss American Teen pageant in November 2000. After winning the statewide title, the then-teenager told the Advocate she was so excited that she went to bed with her crown on.
“I slept in my crown. During the night my grandmother took it off, but when I woke up in the morning, I was wearing it,” she told an Advocate reporter in 2000.
Smith ultimately graduated from Hope High School before building a career as a model and television personality. Smith became a Playboy model and in 2010 was named the magazine’s “Playmate of the Year.”
Smith has also supported numerous charitable causes. In addition to those championed by her husband, Smith has advocated for women’s health, particularly for pregnant women and new mothers. As a contestant on the “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2011, Smith raised $40,000 for Best Buddies International.
In a 2012 interview with Ability magazine, Smith said Best Buddies was a “beautiful program.”
“I like that Best Buddies is about creating one-on-one friendships between two people,” she said. “They help participants with their education, so they can find work. With education and jobs, many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can live independently.”
Smith’s personal assistant said she was on vacation with her family and not able to do any interviews. Smith’s family members in Port Lavaca declined to comment about Smith, noting that she is a private person. Despite their generous donations and gifts, the Smith family has largely avoided the spotlight until they announced their support of Morehouse’s graduating class. Student debt has increasingly become a burdensome reality for college graduates to deal with. About four-in-ten adults under the age of 30 have student loan debt. The exact cost of the Morehouse graduates’ debt hasn’t yet been totaled, but dozens of students from the university have said the support will change their lives.
Ross Jordan, a native of DeSoto, said the Smiths’ gift would wipe out about $50,000 in debt for him. Jordan, 22, graduated from Morehouse with a degree in kinesiology. He plans to attend Columbia University to get a master’s degree in physical education.
“We were sitting there, and when Mr. Smith said his family was writing a grant to pay off (our) student loans, we all sat there and we started thinking, ‘Did he just say that’?” Jordan said. “It took us about three to five seconds and then we all just stood up cheering and hugging and crying.”
The gift is a life-changing one for Jordan, who said he never dreamed of graduating from college when he was younger. When Robert Smith announced the gift at the May 19 ceremony, he urged the class of 396 men to pay it forward.
Jordan said his graduating class had already started a fund to help the incoming freshman class at Morehouse pay for their textbooks.