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Student bridges generations of Smoots

Following in the footsteps of a legendary parent can be a little daunting, but Sherry Smoot, a first-year MBA student at the Sloan School of Management, is already convinced that she can't possibly measure up. And it's hard to argue with her. She is 5' 5 1/2". Her father, Oliver R. Smoot (SB '62 in economics), is 5' 7".

Sherry will never truly be able to recreate the 1958 fraternity prank that caused her father's name and vertical dimension to be immortalized in layers of swimming-pool paint on the sidewalk along the Harvard Bridge. Even so, she says, it's still a hoot to be a Smoot.

She gets instant name recognition, for one thing. "At MIT, people I've never met before will say, 'We were just talking about you yesterday' or 'I know who you are,'" Ms. Smoot said. "Once I was on a plane and introduced myself to the person next to me, and he said, 'Oh, do you know about the Smoots in Boston?' It's kind of fun."

Then there's the knowledge that she is connected to a part of history. A couple of weeks ago, she said, Professor Deborah Kolb -- who teaches Organizational Processes at Sloan -- cited a 1989 People magazine article on the Smoot tradition as an "MIT artifact." "Then she used the overhead projector to display an old transparency of my father at age 18 on the bridge, and had me tell the story to the whole class."

Ms. Smoot said she was forewarned about the attention her name would attract at MIT. Her older brother Steve, who graduated from MIT in 1990 (and who is 5' 11"), had told her that at least three-quarters of the people he encountered at MIT were familiar with the Smoots.

Did the famous name pave her way to the Sloan School? "Not at all," she said. "When I applied, I didn't even mention the family connection."

Nor was she pressured by her brother or her father -- now a senior executive of the Information Technology Industries Council in Washington, DC -- to pick Sloan for her management studies. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a computer science degree and working for American Management Systems as a telecommunications consultant in the United States and Switzerland, Ms. Smoot decided she'd like to branch into other industries.

"I chose Sloan strictly because the School has a great reputation and a great MBA program," she said. "Though my father did try some diplomatic nudging."


Now that she's here, Ms. Smoot is amused by all the conflicting versions of the Smoots legend floating around campus. According to one variant, Ollie Smoot was a rotund student and the eponymous unit of measure derived from his circumference. Other accounts say he was somehow "rolled from head to toe" -- like a caterpillar, perhaps? -- across the bridge. In truth, Ms. Smoot says, her father was quite trim and was selected from among his fellow Lambda Chi Alpha pledges because he was the shortest.

The pledges' assignment, handed to them by fraternity brother Tom O'Connor, was to calibrate the Harvard Bridge so that students approaching MIT could judge their distance from campus. At first, says Ms. Smoot, "my dad was lying down, getting up, lying down, getting up," while another pledge marked the spot. After a while, her father tired of the process and had to be dragged or carried.

According to some versions of the tale, the lads had been drinking. True? "False," Ms. Smoot insisted.

Her favorite twist on the legend is when somebody confidently asserts, "That Smoot guy was the father of a friend of mine." She said she enjoys setting people straight.

Many Sloan classmates are eager to help Ms. Smoot reenact her father's youthful feat. But she resists. "Being shorter, I wouldn't want to mess with the original Smoots," she said. "But there may be other things you can measure with a Smoot. The heights of buildings. The little bridge between the Sloan Building and the Tang Center." Given the MIT imagination -- and the fact that another Tom O'Connor, son of the fraternity brother who commissioned the Smoots, is also enrolled at Sloan -- the possibilities appear to be endless.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 5, 1997.

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