Wise words belie his tender years

13-year-old urges helping children of the Third World

September 10, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Greg Smith is a 13-year-old college senior on his way to four Ph.D.s, the founder of an international peace organization and a celebrated child prodigy who hobnobs with the likes of Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. He was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But when the precocious boy comes to Baltimore tomorrow to lecture in tribute to a 39-year-old Baltimore flight attendant who died in Sept. 11's Pentagon attack, even he will admit that the complex swirl of world events that surround the tragedy still defies his comprehension.

Should the United States declare war on Iraq?

"I think we need to learn more," he says. "You never really know entirely both sides of the story or how much of the story is the whole story. So I'm not able to elaborate on that."

Why do people in other parts of the world hate the United States?

"The hatred has been fostered by terrorists," he says, then quickly admits: "But this is a personal idea. I don't know how true it is."

So what can a boy genius bring for illumination to the memorial event for flight attendant Renee May at the Walters Art Museum, where the woman was a beloved docent and advocate for children's education and the arts?

Nothing political. Nothing religious. Not a word that's remotely sentimental.

He will, instead, deliver a message so plain and innocent that it could only come from the mind of a child: "Violence, disease and despair are rampant in the `underdeveloped world,'" he will say. "If we do not reach the children of these regions and show them our love and compassion, they will become our adversaries, and we will always be in conflict. We must and can do more!"

When museum directors invited the young student from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., to be their keynote speaker at tomorrow's event, they realized it might raise eyebrows. Would he be looked at as an oddity? Could he deliver a pertinent message?

"He is young," acknowledged Jackie Copeland, the museum official who made the selection.

But as Copeland explored ways to create "a living memorial," to May, she kept discarding names of well-known educators, politicians and experts in international relations in favor of the boy. Smith stood out from the pack.

After all, Renee May loved children. She opened her home to neighborhood kids in Fells Point, arranged a photo gallery of her little cousins inside her 150-year-old Baltimore rowhouse and volunteered as the youngest docent at the Walters, specializing in - what else - children's tours.

That the life of the kind-hearted woman would be honored by a 13-year-old boy seemed perfect. "I think Renee would have been fascinated by him," Copeland said.

Greg, the son of University of Maryland graduates Bob and Janet Smith, has been called "the cleverest boy in the world." He is not only a mathematics prodigy, but he also expresses a titanic sense of commitment to ease the suffering of children throughout the world.

Last year, he visited six foreign countries to advocate for programs that would address the plight of children damaged by poverty, violence and drug abuse. In fact, he had just returned from Kenya where he had loaned his time to promote a "peace school" among warring tribes, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred.

"I was looking for new ways for people to help out in far reaches of the world," he recalled. "Then it became important that I try to help out as much as I can to bring back the spirit in our country."

Last September, he spoke to business leaders in Fort Worth, Texas, about terrorism's effect on children. On Oct. 11, he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a "Remember the Children" rally. In November, he spoke to more than 1,700 young people at a community college on Long Island.

As founder of International Youth Advocates, Greg has met with the ambassador of Rwanda to discuss building the country's first public library. He has traveled on behalf of the Christian Children's Fund to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to raise money for a community center. He has spoken at the United Nations summit on children. When he comes to Baltimore, he will promote the various projects and offer his solution to terrorism.

"We have to remember so many places in the world that need our help," he said. "One of my goals is to get people interested in supporting children, not just by giving them a chance for a better life or a feeling of security, but in having any kind of a chance at life at all. We have to look at the big picture if we ever hope to live in a world without fear."

Greg Smith's speech is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the museum's Graham Auditorium. Admission to the lecture, and to the museum all day, is free.

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