As a first-generation college student, grocer’s son and Army veteran, Roger Smith, ’64, learned the value of education from his parents early in life, who taught him the path to a better future is paved with education. They instilled in him the values of gratitude and giving that he and his wife, Jeri, embody today through the Roger E. and Jeri K. Smith Accountancy Scholarship and Fellowship Fund and Roger E. and Jeri K. Smith Omaha Central High School Scholarship Fund, which provide scholarships for graduate and undergraduate students.
Growing up in Omaha, Roger heard adults discuss accounting as a lucrative and interesting profession. He enjoyed working with numbers and excelled in a bookkeeping course at Omaha Central High School. Looking to his future, scholarships enabled him to attend the College of Business, where he learned the values of flexibility and working with others with varied backgrounds and strengths.
“Every person contributes more effectively when they feel valued in the larger organization,” he said.
Mentors and the overall culture at the College of Business continued to guide Roger. His cost accounting professor, Dr. Laverne Cox, employed humor and encouraged students to enjoy themselves in and out of class. “A good lesson for life,” Roger recalled.
“After I began my first job, I realized what a great education I received from the College of Business,” he said. “The environment and Nebraska culture helped form my personality, which enabled me to succeed not just on education and skill but also a Midwestern sense of values and ability to distinguish right from wrong.”
After graduation, Roger entered the Army in April 1965 at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. A second lieutenant, he was assigned to the Office of the Director of Instruction in The Army Finance School at a time when U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased dramatically. For his two-year tour, he helped create courses taught by the faculty. For his performance, the Army awarded him an Army Commendation Medal, given to soldiers who distinguish themselves by meritorious achievement or meritorious service.
While serving at the school, he met Jeri, a student teacher. Roger and Jeri continued dating even after she returned to school in Bloomington, Indiana, and later married in 1967.
Roger went to work for Touche Ross (now Deloitte) in Chicago until 1973, then served as financial vice president of an organization managing a real estate investment trust in Canada. He soon became chief financial officer of its parent company Heitman Financial Services (now Heitman LLC), a position he stayed in for 41 years and later added chief compliance officer until he retired in 2013. During his career, he encountered global financial and economic crises requiring difficult business choices. Through these, he learned the importance of honesty and compassion as well as the need to communicate the value of accounting and financial roles to the broader organization.
“During my career, I saw managers who felt threatened by capable and talented subordinates, and, as a result, restricted their growth and responsibilities. I welcomed such employees as assets to the organization,” he said. “A more pervasive challenge was managing financial professionals in an organization where transactional and capital-raising personnel received greater recognition and compensation. I learned how to explain to fellow senior leaders how the financial and accounting staff contribute to the success of the company. I wasn’t always successful, but I am proud of the legacy of financial and accounting competence that remained when I left.”
In 2017, Roger and Jeri celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, surrounded by their children and grandchildren at their home in Northbrook, Illinois. As part of their generous legacy together, the couple established the Roger E. and Jeri K. Smith Omaha Central High School Scholarship to help students from Omaha attend Nebraska and receive a quality education, just as others supported Roger in his college endeavors.
“I realized in my career how fortunate I was attending and graduating from Nebraska. Others helped me complete my education. I wanted to give the opportunity to other students who might face the same financial limitations I did to achieve their goals, especially students at my high school in Omaha,” he said.
This past year, Roger and Jeri’s Omaha Central High School scholarship benefited two Nebraska College of Business students. One of them, Hailey Hutfless, a sophomore finance major with a Clifton Builders management minor, said she feels the impact of the Smiths’ legacy of philanthropy.
“This scholarship means I felt cared for and acknowledged for my hard work and dedication by those who attended Central High School before me. By relieving financial stress through this scholarship, I could decrease my work hours and focus on my studies,” Hutfless said. “I would like to sincerely thank Roger and Jeri for providing the opportunity to excel and further my college education. I hold a special place in my heart for the community that is Central High School and aim to one day offer scholarships like the one I received.”