Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Selkirk was home to not only one of the most generous men, but one of the most unassuming as well. Robert Smith, most known for his position as General Manager at the Manitoba Rolling Mills would later be revealed as a silent giver and constant caretaker.
Robert Smith was born in Coatbridge, Scotland on July 1, 1880. As a young man, Smith entered the steel industry, starting at the United States Steel Corporation in Erie, Pennsylvania. He then moved to Selkirk in 1922 where he became the General Manager of the Manitoba Rolling Mills. During his years in the United States, Robert and his wife had two children, Hugh Lindsay Smith, and Marjory Jean Fotheringham (Smith). While in Selkirk, Smith would go on to become the first Vice President of the Selkirk General Hospital Board in 1928 and Chairman of the Victory Loan Drive in 1942. He was Mayor from 1936-1937.
All Needs Met
Robert Smith was a manager like none other. “He was the plant. He was management…the boss. But he was also a very good friend.” Smith was known to offer domestic, financial, and all types of help to his employees and coworkers. Robert Smith’s sympathy and generosity was a striking contrast during the trying times of the Great Depression. He frequently sent food hampers, paid for light bills, provided fuel, purchased work boots for those who couldn’t afford them, and even ensured all of his men had a good Christmas.
To illustrate further, the assistance for plant workers lasted long after their employment ended. Robert Smith ensured that retired workers had what they needed before pension plans became common. This help was often in the form of money, food, or fuel. In the unfortunate event of a funeral, Smith covered the costs, ensuring that the families could grieve without financial burden. After his election as mayor, Smith donated his entire salary to charity, marking yet again his love and devotion for the residents of the town.
A New Form of Generosity
Many of his acts of generosity went unrecognized by the public for decades as Smith often gave quietly and without a focus on himself. His actions only started to come to light after his death in 1944. The formation of a new scholarship, the Robert Smith Memorial Scholarship in 1953 undoubtedly brought this humble man’s actions to the foreground. The unconventional scholarship named in honour of a former Manitoba Rolling Mills manager was intended to assist grade 11 children of plant employees.
The Robert Smith School was built in 1959 and commemorates the former mill manager to this day. Smith was a unique manager who broke down the typical barrier between labour staff and management. He treated everyone with respect no matter their status, provided for those in need, and gave back wherever he could. His legacy of giving and humility has lived on well into the present day.
The Robert Smith Collection
Selkirk the First 100 Years, Barry Potyondi
Manitoba Historical Society – Memorable Manitobans Robert Smith (1880-1944)
Winnipeg Free Press 1975 and 1998
Selkirk Enterprise, 1953