Bill Smith

12th October 2012 at 01:00
One of the longest-serving education conveners in Scotland has died in Lerwick, aged 93

Bill Smith chaired the education committee in Shetland for 23 years, from 1972 to 1995, presiding over what was seen as a golden age of generous provision in buildings, staffing and resources. This was partly fuelled by the council's oil wealth, but also by Mr Smith's strong commitment to maximising the benefits of educational opportunity.

It was a commitment rooted in his own early experience. He was of that generation who had the ability but not the family means to go on to university, after he completed his secondary education at the Anderson Educational Institute in Lerwick. As the youngest of seven children, it was decided instead that he should start earning and so, in 1937, he began work as a telephone engineer and this remained his career until he retired in 1983.

His job took him into contact with homes and businesses the length and breadth of Shetland and proved an ideal preparation for life as a councillor: he knew the locals and they knew him. He was first elected to the then Lerwick Town Council and Zetland County Council in 1967 and was returned continuously until his retirement from the successor Shetland Islands Council in 1997. Not for him the coyness of standing as an Independent councillor, as so many of his colleagues in rural areas did and do - Mr Smith stood on the Labour ticket in every election he fought and won.

Although jovial and entertaining, nobody ever doubted the serious purpose behind his political activism and passion for justice in all its forms. His council responsibilities, which included service on the education committee of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his convictions.

Bill Smith's two careers in employment and public life were eventually to be given tangible recognition, first with the award of the British Empire Medal in 1961 for services to the community and telecommunications. The previous winter, he and a colleague had battled through deep snowdrifts and been stranded for three days to keep open vital radio links between Shetland and the outside world. Then in 1991, his "signal service to the cause of education" was acknowledged with a fellowship of the Educational Institute of Scotland - of which one of his sons, Ronnie, would become general secretary four years later.

The impact he made on his island community, and the affection in which he was held, was evidenced not only by the large turnout at his funeral but also by the Shetland flag flying at half-mast from Lerwick town hall.

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