Global traveler makes others feel at home with him

John Leschofs/VAS

Keith Smith, ombudsman for the School of Medicine, keeps a map on the wall of his office with pins showing places where he’s traveled and those he wants to see.

When Keith Smith was a child, he often gazed at maps and daydreamed about visiting far-off lands. What he didn't know then was that he would grow up to be a world traveler going to hundreds of exotic places. Nor did he ever imagine he would work in a profession created by 19th-century Scandinavian nobles.

Smith visited his 63rd country last winter. That was just before he became the School of Medicine's ombudsman, serving as a resource for employees and students going through work-related or personal difficulties. The job's origin and name comes from the Swedish parliament's 1809 appointment of a "people's representative" to hear and resolve complaints against the government.

Although new to the medical side of the campus, Smith is well-known on the university side of Stanford, where he has worked for 31 years.

"He came with a record of tremendous accomplishment and loyalty to the institution, and a reputation of being able to deal with complex, human problems in sensitive, thoughtful and supportive ways," said David Stevenson, MD, vice dean and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the medical school. "That's ultimately what made him very attractive in this role."

As ombudsman, Smith answers questions and provides information, assists with informally resolving disputes and, as he describes it, simply "provides an ear." Above all, he is a confidential and neutral resource for employees.

People who know Smith agree that his Stanford experience, along with his approachable manner and outside interests, make him the perfect fit for this position, which he assumed in January. "He genuinely likes people, likes life and likes to have a good time, and he's an excellent listener," said Shelley Shaw, human resources manager and a close friend of Smith's.

Smith hails from Washington, D.C., where he caught the travel bug at a young age. He joined the Air Force after graduating from the University of Michigan to see the world, he said—and then got stationed in a small town in the middle of Missouri. Ever the optimist, Smith said to himself, "Well, this is a part of the world that I wouldn't otherwise see."

Smith came to Stanford upon a friend's urging in 1977, first working as an employee relations specialist, then in the affirmative action office. He did stints in human resources, development and the provost's office before landing back in employee relations, where he stayed for 18 years—when he packed in as many trips as possible.

Smith keeps a large, framed world map in his office—a gift from Shaw and her son, who became Smith's godson—and he likes to place red pins over the countries he's visited and green pins over the places he would like to. (Green pins currently rest over the Czech Republic, Peru and South Africa.) Fiji and Australia top his list of favorite places; he'll visit anywhere that doesn't require a vaccination, and his favorite travel partners include his niece, nephew and his godson.

Among Smith's other loves are baseball, classical music, community service, musical theater and cooking (Shaw reports that the Bay Area's best gumbo can be found on his stovetop.) He started a theater club in the Air Force, and he's been part of the Stanford Savoyards—a campus group that performs Gilbert & Sullivan operas and other shows—for 30 years.

When asked why he didn't pursue a career in theater, Smith had a simple answer: "I like to eat!" But the real reason may be that he had so many other talents at his disposal. Colleagues marvel at his ability to help people work through their problems, his skill at handling tough situations and his knack for knowing just the right thing to say or do to help at any given time.

Cori Bossenberry, who has known Smith for 20 years, realized the extent of his people skills—and the size of his heart—when she heard about a task he did during his military service: informing parents when their sons or daughters died in combat. He told Bossenberry he thought he was the right person for the job, as difficult as it was, "because he approached the task by thinking about what he would want someone to tell his mother if he died."

"Anyone with that kind of sensitivity is the type of person I want to be friends with and work with," said Bossenberry, director of human resources at the medical school.

Bossenberry called Smith a "natural" for his position, and Smith said he's happy to be filling the role. He encourages people to drop by his office at the Medical School Office Building to visit—unless it's a university holiday, when it's unlikely to find him there. He'll probably be off exploring one of those green pins.