The shocking revelation that Curtis Smith’s generous donation was inspired by his long career with the Southern Pacific Railroad turned more than a few heads, especially that of Sparks High’s Scholarship Director Kathryn Betz.
Betz took over the scholarship program 16 years ago, which was about the same time she met with Smith’s longtime banking associate at US Bank to discover the backstory on the former Sparks resident.
“I really didn’t get it at first because I didn’t know who this man was,” Betz said recalling taking over the program to find bountiful amounts of money. “He had not gone to Sparks High and he had no ties with Sparks High. He just worked for the railroad for a long time and he liked the name Railroaders.”
Betz continued telling how Smith’s will, written on a napkin and some folded pieces of paper, set out stipulations for the Curtis Smith Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship would go to students who were not getting other funds (Millenium Scholarship), it would be worth $2,500 per year and renewable over four years, the fund could never fall below $250,000 in principle and the scholarship would be named in his honor.
Perhaps the most interesting of Smith’s demands was that control of the fund, from the US Bank associate to the scholarship director, could only be handled by somebody who understands the rules and knows Smith’s story.
“He stated that everything in his home had to be sold, and apparently he was a hoarder,” Betz said. “During the liquidation process things kept being discovered. He had a massive coin collection, car collection and stamp collection. He had a little house on Greenbrae (Avenue) that they sold in the height of the real estate boom.
“He had no family, at least that he claimed or claimed him, and he owned everything. He owed money to nobody. I don’t think he never knew the total of his wealth, to be honest. It was a very strange situation.”
Smith’s kind nature in donating the money is what fuels Betz to motivate students to apply for the Curtis Smith Memorial Scholarship, which has given out as much as $38,000 to students in a single year. This year 18 students applied for and received scholarship money from the Curtis Smith funds, many of them staying in northern Nevada to attend college and some going as far as Maine.
Betz said she shares the excitement of realizing funds are available as a student at Sparks High.
“I am also a Sparks High graduate and I wasn’t going to college,” Betz said. “I lived right across the street, I came from an alcoholic family and I knew when I was 4 that I wanted to be a teacher. It was a tough life and a tough situation. It is a lot of the same stories I sit and hear every day where access to college is not the dream.
“One of my counselors pulled me aside my senior year and said ‘why haven’t you done anything or applied for scholarships’ and I said ‘I am not going.’ She said ‘yes you are.’ She gave me some help and it is because of that I am sitting here today. I feel like I am paying it back for the help that I got and it is very cyclical. So many of the kids who get help now come back to pay it back at this school. We are very family oriented.”
Betz said she worked diligently with this year’s group of Curtis Smith Scholarship applicants to help them understand the process of asking for scholarship funds. She said altering the students’ mindset to focus on the important task took time and effort from both parties.
“Most of my kids who fill out (other) applications are in that mindset and doing it for me,” Betz said. “They are ready to go. But the kids who fill (the Curtis Smith Scholarship) out aren’t quite in that mindset, they haven’t gotten their letters of recommendation so I really have to push them hard.
“They are really proud of themselves for finishing it. The completion is hard for them. They will start but they won’t finish. Having help along the way and they can come see me anytime to get help on anything. I like to make sure the applications are perfect because you are publishing to an outside world and they never meet you.”
Betz said the students receiving the Curtis Smith Scholarship in 2013 were “very, very motivated” and added that they were “very deserving” of the financial help. Betz, though she has handled this scholarship for 16 years, found herself aiming questions at the unknown life of Curtis Smith and his “serendipitous” gift.
“When I think about this, somehow if only he would have known his impact would it have mattered in the same way it matters to us?” Betz asked. “Did he know what impact this would have? Being somebody not really associated with Sparks High, I wonder if he knew.”
Still, Betz said regardless if Smith knew the lives he would eventually change or not, his donated wealth will continue to help students for years to come.
“He left a legacy because he really wasn’t one,” Betz said. “(Smith’s personal banker) wanted me to know his story so that I can take care of that and when I leave this job I pass it on to the next person so that story remains because that scholarship will be here forever.
“It will never go away and we can live on the interest forever. We will be giving Curtis Smith Memorial Scholarships to kids 50 years from now to Sparks HIgh School.”