One Omaha World-Herald photographer not only captured history but is a part of it, as well—all because he made a difference for his community, especially the community at UNO.
UNO alum Howard K. Marcus, an adjunct instructor in the UNO School of Communication, knew Rudy Smith for 45 years and worked with him at the Omaha World-Herald for 22 of those years.
“Rudy was charismatic – the kind of person whose presence would fill a room with positive energy,” said Marcus. “He brought that special spark to everything he did. Rudy was never at a loss for words and was earnest in whatever he did – his job, helping the community and more.”
Smith was born on Jan. 6, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was raised in Omaha, Nebraska.
After attending and hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a convention in Denver with his Omaha church group at 13 years old, Smith was inspired to become more active in his community. In an interview with Omaha Magazine, he said, “King was riveting, mesmerizing.”
“I had never heard anything like that before in my life,” Smith said in the interview. “It changed my whole value system. I saw two worlds: one white and one black, one affluent and one oppressed.”
Smith became involved with the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, where he eventually became president of a seven-state region. He participated in many sit-ins, protests and marches.
One of his protests included the protest of the lack of black employees at the Omaha World-Herald, which earned him and his minister a chance to meet with a manager. It eventually led to his longtime employment at the Herald.
When Smith graduated from Central High School in 1963, he attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha while working full time at the Omaha World-Herald. During that time, he advocated for the hiring of black faculty at the university and the establishment of the Department of Black Studies. Smith also introduced legislation to remove discriminatory housing practices near campus.
“I think Rudy’s impact on Omaha has reverberated through the years,” Marcus said. “Many people who never knew him have benefited from his early 1960s efforts to bring diversity into the local media.”
Marcus said he met Smith when he was only 13 and was photographed with his friends for a feature.
“Some of my religious school classmates and I had taken a storeroom in the school and turned it into a learning center,” Marcus said. “The World-Herald assigned Rudy to photograph us for a feature on the Youth page, which made us minor celebrities for a couple of days.”
When Smith graduated from UNO as the first black graduate of the School of Communication, he started his new position as a photographer at the Omaha World-Herald. He photographed many prominent events, including the June 1969 Omaha riots.
Smith later became the first African American faculty member in the UNO School of Communication and served as a faculty member for many years, creating scholarship opportunities for minority students and improving business opportunities for both women and minorities across Nebraska.
Smith also served on a state affirmative action advisory committee, pressing for minority rights in employment, training and retention in the state. He served under Gov. Bob Kerrey, Gov. Ben Nelson and Gov. Mike Johanns.
Marcus said Smith personally helped him develop as a photographer in the field.
“About a dozen years after Rudy photographed me, I was hired at the World-Herald and spent a lot of time in the photo department, where Rudy worked,” said Marcus.
Marcus said his fondest memory of Smith was when they both were scheduled to take pictures of the Maverick football game.
“While I was a UNO student, I ran into Rudy while we were both taking pictures of a Maverick football game. The light in the end zones wasn’t great, and I was really struggling to get good photos,” Marcus said. “Even when he was on deadline, Rudy stopped to offer me his detailed recommendations for the best results.”
Smith was given the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Service Award for his activism in the North Omaha community and has won over 50 awards for his photography.
Smith retired from the World-Herald in 2008. He was a founder of the Salem Baptist church food pantry and the pantry’s first president. He was also on the board of directors for the Great Plains Black History Museum where he served as the board president.
Smith passed away on Dec. 5, 2019. Many people, including Marcus, said Smith’s legacy leaves a lasting impact on those who knew him best.
“To me, Rudy’s legacy is that it’s essential to use your skills to benefit the community,” Marcus said. “Sometimes that means working quietly behind the scenes, as Rudy often did. At other times, it means speaking out against injustice. He did that, too—with long-lasting results.”