Sara Spencer Brown Smith

Sarah Spencer Brown Smith

Sara Spencer Brown was born May 16th, 1873 in Hollymount in the Mayo county of Ireland. She was born the daughter of Sarah Mills and Reverend Andrew Brown, who was likely a Presbyterian minister. The Brown family immigrated to Michigan when Sara was still a child.[1] Popular culture in the 1870s-90s branded the Irish as shady politicians, alcoholics, brawlers and criminals. Although by the time of the Browns’ immigration anti-Irish prejudice had waned somewhat, Irish immigrants were still faced with negative stereotypes and discrimination.[2] Sara Brown was likely shielded to a degree from anti-Irish sentiment both by her family’s Protestant religion—Sara Brown was an active member of the First Congregational Church—and by the fact that they were well-off enough to send her to high school and then to university.

After immigrating to the United States, Sara Brown was enrolled in Ann Arbor High School (now Pioneer High School). At the age of 20, she enrolled in the University of Michigan, where she would go on to earn a Bachelor’s of Philosophy in 1897. While in college, she met her future husband Shirley Wheeler Smith, who graduated in her year.[3] During their junior year, Shirley became acquainted with Sara’s birth country while acting as a special correspondent for “a number of papers” as he travelled the British Isles. The pair married in September 1899, and they both went on to do work for the university and its alumnae.[4]

Sara Brown Smith was a founder and chairman of the Alumnae Council. She was later praised for being an important part of the Council’s “tremendous effort which brought the Michigan League to campus.” In 1931, she went on to become an instrumental founder of the University of Michigan Alumnae Club in Ann Arbor, and was heavily involved in its major projects. Among these were the effort to form a Scholarship Committee to assist local Ann Arbor girls in University tuition fees. She also raised money for the purchase of a cooperative women’s dormitory in the Henderson House. Her involvement in women’s housing for the Alumnae Council went beyond fundraising to include becoming part of the board of governors for the Adelia Cheever House.[5]

Like her coworker Lucille Bailey Conger, Smith received the Distinguished Alumnae Service award in 1957 for her “unstinting” work and effort while working in alumnae affairs for the preceding 33 years. She experienced hardly three years of retirement, passing away February 16th, 1960 after a long illness. She was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery.[6] In 1966, Richard L. Cutler, then-Vice President of Student Affairs successfully recommended to the Board of Regents that one of the houses in the Vera Baits complex be named for her.[7] Though Baits I (which contained the house bearing her name) no longer houses students, it remains a testament to how Sara Spencer Brown Smith, as an immigrant, managed to become an integral part of the University and Ann Arbor community.

  1. Mrs. Sara Smith, Box 621, Necrology Files.
  2. W.H.A. Williams, Twas only an Irishman’s dream: the image of Ireland and the Irish in American popular song lyrics, 1800-1920 (University of Illinois Press, 1996).
  3. Mrs. Sara Smith, Box 621, Necrology Files.
  4. Herbert M. Rich, “Shirley Wheeler Smith–The New Alumni Secretary,”The Michigan Alumnus (1901) 7: 423-424. 
  5. “Sara Browne Smith and Friends, by Anne Vance Hatcher, 1981,” Box 3, University of Michigan Alumnae Club of Ann Arbor, Sara Browne Smith Group Records.
  6. Mrs. Sara Smith, Box 621, Necrology Files.
  7. June 1966 meeting, Proceedings of the Board of Regents (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969). Available:
Image credit:

Sara Brown Smith (Mrs. Shirley), Shirley Wheeler Smith Papers.