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The legacy of Commander Merle Smith

Cadet Merle Smith was everything a future Coast Guard officer needed to be when he entered the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1962. A natural leader eager to lead, he was smart, athletic, determined and brave. He had to be. He would need all of those qualities not simply as an officer but as a groundbreaker; like many who challenge traditional norms, he was not universally welcomed. Merle James Smith Jr., who died Wednesday at age 76, was the first African American to graduate from the academy.

Throughout his life, Commander Smith continued to break new ground for Black Americans. He was the first to command a federal vessel in combat — in the Vietnam War — and the first African-American sea service officer to receive the Bronze Star. After earning a law degree from George Washington University, he returned to New London and became the first Black officer to hold a faculty position as a law professor at the academy. He later served as chief counsel in the legal department at Electric Boat. 

In the greater New London area, Merle Smith may be most widely known for his leadership in community affairs. His service included the boards of Amistad America, United Way, and the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Fund, which distributes profits of The Day Publishing Co. to non-profit organizations in the region. Of all the USCG officers who have returned to this area after retirement and applied their skills and experience in civic affairs, education or public service, his is among the most recognizable names. He has been honored by many and admired by many more.

The Day extends sympathy to his family and friends, including his wife, Dr. Lynda Smith, who serves as a director of The Day, son Merle James Smith III and daughter Chelsea B. Smith.

The end of a distinguished life creates a moment to recall how a person accomplished what they did, the temperature of their times, and the lessons learned that could be used to instruct a new generation. Merle Smith's academic and military career began in the Civil Rights era, during the Vietnam War, and with a family tradition of military service he was determined to honor.

His arrival as a Black cadet for swab summer in 1962 evoked a range of attitudes from fellow cadets — from the chilling comment by one who told him that integrating the academy should be greeted "the old-fashioned way," with a Confederate flag, to his football teammates, who confronted the cadet who made the threat.

In this past year, young Americans, particularly African Americans, have found their voice to call attention to such chilling racism and to far worse − even fatal − treatment. They have revived Black Lives Matter and infused it with their own determination and leadership. The Coast Guard Academy itself in the past several years has confronted bias directed by cadets toward cadets, and has laboriously moved to eliminate a culture that would tolerate such attitudes.

As an officer Merle Smith led and taught young men and women aboard ship and in classrooms. Action that condemns racism and rewards merit is a fitting tribute to him.

In recent years Merle Smith suffered from debilitating illnesses that his family says were caused by exposure in Vietnam to Agent Orange. His health prevented him from participating as much as he might otherwise have in the retelling of his life story last year, in the "Stories of Resilience" exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and the LaGrua Center. The exhibit focused on him and four other African-American achievers. His wife spoke for him, at his side.

In comments on her husband's behalf, Lynda Smith said a reason for his resilience was "his strong belief in himself, that it's not what people say about you or think about you, but it's who you are and what you do — to just let your performance speak for itself.

"Merle in his time at the Coast Guard Academy and his career in the Coast Guard exemplified what the Coast Guard stands for: honor, duty, loyalty, respect and service."

Fair winds and following seas, Commander Smith.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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