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Frank P. Smeal: From Coal Town to Wall Street

Frank P. Smeal building

Frank P. Smeal’s journey from the rural coal town of Sykesville, Pennsylvania to the towering monoliths of Wall Street would not have been possible if not for his education. This simple fact was something he never forgot and his gratitude towards the school where he received his education remained a constant throughout his entire life. Even after reaching the apex of Wall Street success and riches, he never stopped giving thanks to the central Pennsylvania college where he once sharpened his tools.

Frank’s mother, Mary Smeal, inspired him to attend college, in no small part to direct him away from the difficult and often deadly conditions of the coal mines in Sykesville – where his father worked. One can only imagine Frank’s willingness to continue his education and escape the black clouds of dust and rock that awaited each man of age in Sykesville.

Bird's Eye View Du Bois, PA

Bird’s Eye View Du Bois, PA

During his youth, Frank became involved in the Boy Scouts of America, eventually achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. He would, in later life, serve as Chairman of the Greater New York Councils of Boy Scouts of America, while also contributing numerous donations.

As a young man, Frank worked at a soda fountain. During this time, he hitchhiked five miles each way to his classes at Penn State’s DuBois campus where he studied for two years before transferring to Main Campus.  At DuBois, Frank was a reportedly quiet boy who wore a black suit, white shirt and black tie everyday – even though the other men of his class tended to dress casually. This detail is striking and clearly shows the appreciation and seriousness in which Frank Smeal undertook his studies.

A former classmate of Smeal’s, Janet Beezer, is quoted, describing him: “He was so quiet in our classes together; I guess we didn’t recognize he was a genius… He turned out to be a real success story.”

While at Penn State, he earned his undergraduate degree as a Phi Beta Kappa in economics in 1942. He would later go on to be the treasurer of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and of the Phi Beta Kappa Foundation.

Frank is quoted as saying, “Penn State is my first love after my wife and family. It gave me the education I needed.” After graduating, Frank served for four years in the Army. He then went on to earn his MBA from Harvard in 1947 and a degree in law from New York University in 1952.

Frank and his then fiancé, Mary Jean, married in 1942 after graduating from PSU, and went on to have two children, Mary Margaret and Henry. In 1953 the couple began their long history of giving to the college by donating $2.58 per year – an amount that would eventually reach millions.

bull

Charging Bull Statue on Wall Street

Frank Smeal was renowned for his expertise in the municipal bond market. He began his 38-year career at the Gauranty Trust Co., which later became part of the Morgan Guaranty Trust (now JPMorgan Chase). During this time, Smeal played an integral role in leading New York City through its major budgetary crisis of 1975 and 1976.  He served as chairman of New York’s Citizen’s Budget Commission, a nonpartisan civic watchdog group that monitored financial activities at the municipal and state levels. In 1977, he left Morgan Gauranty Trust for Goldman Sachs, & Co., where he served as a limited partner.  Smeal also sat as a member on the company’s senior management committee. Additionally, he served as managing director of the firm’s fixed income department.

Other roles which Frank fulfilled, include the presidency of the Municipal Bond Club of New York and a chairmanship of the Government and Federal Agencies Securities Committee of the Public Securities Association (now known as The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association), which represents the largest securities markets in the world.

Smeal’s civic activities were likewise numerous. Aside from his previously noted positions with Phi Beta Kappa and the Boy Scouts of America, he was the Chair of the Penn State Development Council and board member of the Mount Nittany Society. He received Penn State’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1974 and the college’s Alumni Fellowship of the College of Liberal Arts in 1986. In 1987, Smeal was named Outstanding Alumnus of Penn State DuBois.

The Penn State Smeal College of Business earned its name in 1990 as a result of a generous 10 million dollar gift from Frank and Mary Jean. At the time, the Smeals’ gift was the largest individual donation in the University’s history. The couple’s support also led to the creation of a faculty chair in literary theory and comparative criticism; an award in creative writing; a graduate level assistantship in plant pathology and botany; and the Goldman Sachs & Co. and Frank P. Smeal University Endowed Fellowship in Business Administration. Notably, the couple was inspired to initiate the chair in literary theory and comparative criticism by the memory of Mary Jean’s sister Katey Lehman.  Katey was an avid writer for Penn State’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian and later for the Centre Daily Times, which is State College, PA’s paper of record.

Smeal Portrait

Portrait of Frank and Mary Jean Smeal

As a direct result of the Smeal’s 1990 donation, a total of five endowed chairs were created, graduate studies enrollment increased from 5,000 to 6,000 a year, new programs such as the EMBA in Philadelphia were created, and the total amount of graduates has doubled since the year of their great gift. Another effect of the Smeal’s example was the creation of a philanthropic culture among Smeal alumni, including six donations of more than $2.5 million each since 1990.

After his death in 1993, then Dean of Penn State, Judy D. Olian, said, “We will be indebted always to the vision and legacy of Frank Smeal, our benefactor and namesake… Throughout his professional, community and personal life, he made lasting contributions to individuals and organizations in small and large ways.”

On the surface, Frank Smeal is certainly an enigma – a Wall Street Bondsman, philanthropist, Boy Scout enthusiast, and most importantly, a devout believer in the power of education. He embodied loyalty and gave back to nearly every organization in which he participated.

Frank is quoted, famously, as saying, “Success is 90% hard work.” While this quote embodies Frank’s drive and perseverance, it overlooks the incredible passion and ethics that guided his work, and for which we remember him today, as an example of how to do business with dignity and humanity.

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About the Author

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Maggie Boccella

Maggie Boccella, a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, is a freelance writer, artist and photographer. She has consulted on various film and multimedia projects, and she also serves as a juror for the city's annual LGBTQIA Film Festival.

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