Mary Perry Smith lived a life of service to students and the community, and her influence was apparent in the kind words said about her during a tribute last week. MESA’s co-founder and the heart of the program was remembered for her passion, commitment and achievements.


MESA executive director Oscar Porter employed the description of women in the coastal Sea Islands culture to describe Mary’s approach and commitment. These people view women as warriors who exemplify strength and independence while persevering during difficult circumstances.


Of Mary, Porter said:


“In MESA, we have lost our original warrior but thousands of students have “countered the malevolent forces working against them” because Mary was their warrior. MESA honors her today and we will honor her legacy by continuing the work she began and cared about so much.”


Three of Mary’s former students represented the MESA alumni who succeeded through her support and commitment.


“Mary Perry Smith and the MESA program encouraged me to be an engineer,” said Tim Upshaw, a Lockheed Martin satellite systems engineer and one of Mary’s early Oakland Tech students.


Beyond her influence in the classroom, Mary’s volunteer work in the community changed lives as well.


She volunteered at the Oakland Museum of California for more than 30 years, served on the foundation board and was president of the museum women’s board. One of her colleagues mentioned not only Mary’s playful side and pleasure in instigating pranks, but also her infamous look that froze student and adult alike in place if they had crossed a line.


Mary’s passion for African American history also lead her to co-create the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame, an organization dedicated to nurturing independent filmmakers and highlighting the contribution of black artists. Among the inductees are Gordon Parks, Katherine Dunham, Oscar Michaux, Sydney Poitier and Ruby Dee.


Mary’s work with MESA will be preserved at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library Oral History Office. Her black filmmakers involvement will be memorialized at the Indiana University Black Film Center Archive.


Through MESA, future generations of successful students will continue to be a testament to Mary’s vision.