Friends, Colleagues Remember SHRM Founder Leonard Smith

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 6, 2009
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Leonard J. Smith, SPHR, one of the last founding members of the organization that became the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), died Jan. 29, 2009 at age 91 in Los Angeles.

He served as co-chairman of the second annual conference of the National Association of Personnel Directors, held in Chicago in 1947. However, during that time concerns that he and others shared about NAPD prompted Smith to convene a meeting with nearly 30 others there to explore creating a national organization dedicated to their profession.

Those efforts led to the founding of the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA) in 1948. Smith became ASPA’s second president in 1951. Forty-one years after its founding, ASPA changed its name to SHRM. Smith’s involvement in laying the cornerstone of ASPA/SHRM was one of the things he was proudest of in his long career, he told SHRM Online in 2007.

“Leonard certainly made a difference for the profession for generations to come,” China Miner Gorman, SHRM COO, told staff. SHRM celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008, she noted, and “thanks to the vision, foresight and leadership of Leonard J. Smith and 27 other personnel directors, today SHRM has more than 250,000 members in 140 countries.

It is recognized among business, on Capitol Hill and in other industries as the voice for the HR profession. … Leonard certainly made a difference for the profession for generations to come,” she said, and SHRM plans to make a donation to the SHRM Foundation in Smith’s honor.

Former colleagues recalled Smith fondly.

‘A Special Kind of Person’

“Lennie was a special kind of person,” 1972 SHRM Board Chair Clyde Benedict wrote in an e-mail to SHRM. He noted Smith’s “foresight and a practical understanding of what was needed” by those in the profession.

“They were ‘plowing new ground’ and needed help,” Benedict added. “Lennie saw the needs and began to build this organization. The rest is history. It was wonderful to have had opportunities to be a part of it all those years.

“Lennie and others have done a great job. The current leadership is doing beautifully. Nevertheless, I am thankful that Lennie was so engaged in birthing ASPA. He was a gentleman who could see a long way down the pike of human resources professionalism and its needs where the work was being done.”

Michael R. Losey, SPHR, who became SHRM’s president and CEO in 1990, called Smith “a first-class professional” who “could see the future and made things happen.”

Smith and fellow ASPA members “took money out of their own pocket to do this,” putting in unpaid hours and flying around the country on the organization’s behalf.

“It was really unbelievable. I just wish that every [SHRM] member for a moment could feel the joy that Leonard would feel each year at the [SHRM Annual] Conference when he’d see what 28 people could deliver,” Losey told SHRM Online. “We’ll never see that again.”

James H. Skaggs, SPHR, who served as board chair in 1984, characterized Smith as “a real champion, HR pro and great leader” who will be missed.

“I am so thankful that I got to know him and share the same [July 3] birthday,” Skaggs wrote in an e-mail.

James E. Ware, SPHR, 1983 board chair, remembered Smith as “one of a kind” and someone who “will be remembered fondly and for a long time.”

Wanda A. Lee, SPHR, 1990 board chair, recalled Smith as “a pioneer who left us a legacy that we can perpetuate by continuing to advance the profession. We can also use our leadership skills to support our country in this time of critical change,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That is what Len would want us to do.”

Ronald C. Pilenzo, SPHR, who served as SHRM president and COO from May 1980 to January 1991, knew Smith since the 1970s. He recalled Smith’s contribution to the profession.

“Len was one of ASPA/SHRM’s greatest supporters. Professionally, and personally, he always put us first, and his many years as an activist in the New York City chapter will always be remembered,” Pilenzo told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

“As a founder, he pursued his lifelong ambition of moving the profession forward, and his efforts are clearly evident in what SHRM has become. He will be missed.”

Gary L. Howard, SPHR, 1999 board chair, remembered Smith in an e-mail as “a great individual” who “always participated in SHRM activities with gusto.”

“He will be missed, and it is a reminder that we all ‘stand on the shoulders’ of people like Len who provided leadership to a fledgling organization when it needed it. Just look what that ‘mustard seed’ turned into for the profession.”

“Leonard was a beacon in our profession, and I’m sorry that light was dimmed,” 2005 Human Resource Certification Institute board member R. Gregory Green, SPHR, GPHR, told SHRM Online. He visited with Smith shortly before Smith’s death.

“He was a guiding light to me, as a mentor, a colleague and a friend,” Green said. “He was just amazing. He was just a very, very wonderful man.”

Smith received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University in personnel and industrial management.

Four Decades of Experience

His background included more than 40 years in personnel and consulting for industry, health care institutions and government. He served as management and labor relations advisor and director for the Industrial Manage­ment Program; director of in­dustrial relations at Arvey Corp.; and he had been the executive director of Leonard J. Smith & Associates, a management consulting and training firm in Miami.

He was an instructor at New York University and Manhattan College; taught at Fairleigh Dickinson Junior College for 45 years and at Rutgers University for 41 years; and lectured at universities around the world. He was the author of two textbooks and numerous articles.

Smith told SHRM Online in 2007 that “my ambition was always to help the people in the field to become more and more professional.”

He and his wife Ethel retired to Florida in 1988, and they moved to California in 2000 to be closer to family. In California, Smith created the “Leonard Smith’s Lecture Series,” which brought weekly speakers to the retirement apartment building where the couple lived.

His volunteer work included helping form the National Prostate Cancer Coalition and running 19 prostate cancer support groups in southeast Florida; he continued to assist the coalition while in California through involvement with the group’s newsletter.

He is survived by his wife, to whom he was married 70 years; daughter Gail Buckley and her husband Daniel in Los Angeles; and son Neil Buckley in New Jersey. He had three grandchildren.

Condolences can be sent in care of Mr. and Mrs. Dan Buckley, 1814 Preuss Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90035.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

To view a video interview with Leonard Smith, click here.

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