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Pioneering alumna blazes trail for future grads

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From left to right: Associate Professor Megan McClelland, Katherine Smith, Dean Tammy Bray

Katherine Smith, a 1961 alumna from the college’s early days as a College of Home Economics, met with students and faculty at the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families in December to share her story and offer sage advice on navigating college and career life.

Katherine also met with Associate Professor Megan McClelland, the inaugural Katherine E. Smith Endowed Professorship for Healthy Children and Families. “I am extremely grateful and excited to have been named to this position,” Megan says. “This generous endowment will provide the catalyst to move forward on a number of local, state and national initiatives related to promoting healthy development in young children. Katherine Smith was a trailblazer in her field, and I have greatly appreciated getting to know her. I hope I can carry forward her energy and passion in this endowed position.”

As a child, Katherine benefited from parents who nurtured her creativity and drive to succeed. A close-knit family, Katherine’s dad managed an ice cream company and her mom managed the household, including Katherine and her younger brother.

“This generous endowment will provide the catalyst to move forward on a number of local, state and national initiatives related to promoting healthy development in young children.”

Those early years shaped her future. First, Katherine says it was a “given” she would attend college. Because of her dad’s job, which involved frequent moves, she also became quite good at adapting to new schools and places, something she continued as she built her career in the food industry.

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Home Economics Building (Milam Hall) soon after construction. Property of Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University

Oregon State was “high on Dad’s list,” she says, even though she preferred a smaller, all-women’s school. But she gave it a try and found the College of Home Economics in 1957 to be similar to a women’s college – albeit within a larger university. The dean and most of the faculty and students were women and good role models, and it was similar, she says, to the corporate customer service departments she would later join.

After graduation, she worked at a gas utility company in Los Angeles, conducting cooking schools and working with homebuilders to design homes using gas appliances. She later transitioned to Pillsbury in Minneapolis, where she was director of its test kitchens. She put her skills in marketing and sales to work on the company’s new product development and the Pillsbury Bake-Off campaign before being named vice president at A&P Supermarket Co. in New Jersey – the first woman vice president in the company’s history.

In 1981, she joined Quaker Oats in Chicago as vice president of consumer affairs, responsible for marketing communications, the Quaker test kitchens and consumer response. Later, she was named executive vice president at Dairy Management Inc. and was elected to the board of CILCORP and Central Illinois Light Company.

At every step, she relied on her leadership and transferable skills, and her desire to learn new things. But it wasn’t always easy.

There were some stumbling stones that she turned into stepping-stones. At Oregon State, a professor refused to allow her to take physics because she wasn’t a major and would “take a spot from a man.” Many wonderful mentors both in her college and other classes, she says, made up for those who were yet to appreciate women’s contributions on campus and in industry.

“Katherine Smith was a trailblazer in her field, and I have greatly appreciated getting to know her. I hope I can carry forward her energy and passion in this endowed position.”

Overcoming such stereotypes in her career also would come with its challenges. For perspective, she often thought back to an experience working in a nursery school with 3- and 4-year-olds. One rainy day, she was holding the hand of a small African American boy when another child asked her if she knew what was different about the child. Holding her breath, she was relieved to hear them say it was his red boots! That scene, which still makes her emotional, helped her realize not to make assumptions, to find out more about people and situations and to learn from one another.

In the ’70s, the corporate environment was changing from those days early in her career when she was passed over for a promotion and raise because she was a woman. Due to discrimination lawsuits and government intervention, companies were hiring and promoting more women into management. She grew tough skin and savvy to corporate structures, which she said were akin to sports with their team-player analogies and militaristic top-down structures that often left women not knowing the rules of the game and out in the cold.

But in every position, despite some of the circumstances, she adapted, excelled and advanced to higher and higher positions, eventually forming a consulting business in strategic communications and executive coaching.

And after years of living in major metropolitan cities and high-rise condominiums, she bought a home in Arizona because she wanted more sunshine and to work in her garden. She volunteers on art boards and as a reading coach to elementary school children, and she continues to take classes and travel.

Her advice to current students and recent alums: “Stay curious!”