Disciples Divinity House

of the University of Chicago

Celebrating "the immigrants' daughter" and an astonishing gift

August 01, 2016 —  

April 16, 2016, would have been Ellen Marie Christine Gormsen Smith’s eighty-fifth birthday. On that day, friends, colleagues, and family— husband Clyde Curry Smith, children Harald and Karen and their spouses, seven grandchildren, and extended family—gathered from far and near to celebrate her birthday and her life. There was an abundance to celebrate: friendships and family, to be sure, and also gifts of teaching and service, faithfulness, Danish heritage, and generosity to the Disciples Divinity House.

Ellen Marie Christine Gormsen was born on April 16, 1931, in Lakewood, Ohio, to a Danish immigrant family within a Danish Brotherhood Community primarily established by her great-uncle, Jens (James) Gormsen. Her father, Henry Emil Gormsen, had joined his uncle’s world in 1922; her mother, Louise Marie Jensen, came from Denmark to be his wife in 1929. More than did her younger sister, Anna Margaret, she experienced the ambivalence of being the “immigrants’ daughter.”

Ellen was educated at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, receiving the Bachelor of Science in Education degree in 1953. On June 13 that same year, she married Clyde Curry Smith of Hamilton, Ohio, then a Disciples Divinity House Scholar who would receive the BD (1954), AM (1961), and PhD (1968) degrees from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. After their Chicago years, they moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where their two children were born. In 1965, they moved to River Falls, Wisconsin, where Mr. Smith joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, and Mrs. Smith’s career eventually led to extensive public service.

William E. Crowl, alumnus and former Associate Dean, gave the eulogy at the April 16 service. “Ellen’s whole adult life was marked by her work for the common good,” he observed.“Her family—parents, husband, and children—were central in her labors. But so, too, were the unnamed and unknown she encountered wherever she lived and worked.”

The Smiths had met at a church conference for college students in Ohio and served together as staff at Camp Christian. They were married in her home congregation, the Lakewood Christian Church. Those connections in the Disciples of Christ grew deeper over the years.

In 2002, the Smiths called Bill Crowl to inquire about making a gift to the Divinity House. Mrs. Smith had received one-half of her parents’ estate. While profoundly appreciative for that, the Smiths said they “did not need the money.” Instead, they decided to create a charitable gift annuity with the Christian Church Foundation that could provide income in retirement for Ellen with the residual ultimately benefiting the Disciples Divinity House. Bill Crowl, together with Gary Kidwell of the Foundation, worked with them to make that possible.

Ellen Smith’s family legacy, combined with the Smiths’ shared commitment to the Disciples of Christ and the Disciples Divinity House, provided for a significant gift to the Divinity House. They shepherded and shielded that gift, including reducing the payout of the annuity in 2009 after the economic decline.

The Disciples Divinity House received a check earlier this year from the Christian Church Foundation for the magnificent sum of $329,380.37. After Ellen’s death, Clyde decided to terminate the gift annuity so that the residual could be distributed during his lifetime, and the check represented that distribution.

This astonishing gift, provided by “the immigrants’ daughter,” is among the very largest that the Divinity House has ever received. The gift was fashioned from the fullness and faithfulness of the lives of Ellen Marie Gormsen Smith and Clyde Curry Smith. It was made all the more remarkable in that Clyde Smith made it possible for the Disciples Divinity House to receive the full fruition of their plans during his own lifetime. We are deeply grateful for Ellen Smith, for Clyde Curry Smith, and for this astonishing gift—indeed, for the many remarkable gifts of the Smiths’ lives and work.