Rudy Smith in 2018. Image courtesy of Rudy Smith and Susan Brissenden-Smith.

Rudy Smith from legendary American Football running back at San Francisco State University to Chief Probation Officer of Juvenile Services in San Francisco, has long cemented his legacy as a changemaker. Smith’s perseverance, hard work, and passion, allowed him to make a significant impact in San Francisco.

Smith was often written about in local newspapers during his collegiate playing career, with a majority of those writings being in praise of abilities. For instance, in 1950 the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “star running-back (Right Half) Rudy Smith for SF State was deemed ‘Gator star of the evening’ after a 58-yard run from scrimmage was the longest run of the night to score their second touchdown.” In his first dominant years at San Francisco State University, he was renowned for going on scoring streaks throughout the season. Rudy was inducted into the SFSU gridiron Hall of Fame in 1992 as a result of his achievements.

Before finding his way into juvenile services, Smith entered the Air Force after graduating from SF State in 1955. As a second lieutenant he was trained as a pilot at Luke Air Force Base, near Phoenix, Arizona. His close friend Rotea Gilford was quoted as saying that Rudy’s landing of a jet was more like a “controlled crash.” Rudy’s military service spanned three years of active duty and several years in the reserves, culminating in his promotion to the rank of Major.

Upon returning to San Francisco with a young family, Rudy held several jobs, including acting as a cable car gripman, until he found his calling with San Francisco Juvenile Probation, serving at the Youth Guidance Center. In this role, Smith fostered relationships with the community leading him to work throughout the 1960s with city leaders such as Lefty Gordon and many others who are memorialized on the Inspiration murals.

In 1970 Smith was recruited to work for a special new probation unit called Watoto in East Palo Alto (“watoto” means “children” in Swahili). He accepted the challenge of this experiment, utilizing community street workers in an attempt to stem the tide of crime in this community.

Recruited by Mayor Willie L. Brown, Rudy Smith served as Chief Probation Officer for San Francisco’s Probation Services, advocating for youth and restorative justice.

After serving for many years in San Mateo County, through opportune timing and impressive experience, Smith became the second in command at San Francisco’s embattled juvenile probation department, having been recruited by Mayor Willie L. Brown to take over in 1996. He had previously served as San Mateo County’s juvenile intake/traffic director, a position of equal importance in juvenile and probation services. Smith, then 63 years of age, said of the opportunity to serve in San Francisco: “I’m excited. It’s quite a challenge.” Smith was granted the position of interim chief probation officer that same year after Ed Flowers had resigned from the position. Here, Smith led discussions for plans to reorganize the department’s budget and to correct the actions of accounting director Ace Tago, after embezzlement troubles of up to $100,000 had been discovered. Smith made every effort to reform Juvenile Services in San Francisco before his retirement.

Rudy Smith led a varied career in the fields of juvenile/probation services, and much more. It was his demeanor and purpose in every position he would go on to tackle that set him apart as a changemaker. Although he has been retired for many years, the communities he has worked in, such as the Western Addition, have never wavered in their appreciation for the impact he has made.

Smith’s impact can be captured by a recent experience. Smith was out at lunch when he was approached by a young man who asked, “Are you Mr. Smith?” When Rudy replied that he was, the young man said, “I want to thank you—you were my P.O. in S.F. and I was on the wrong path. You saved my life.”

Who could hope for a more impactful legacy? 

Marcelo Swofford and Susan Brissenden-Smith

Works Cited

“Gators Crush Humboldt.” SF Chronicle. 21 Oct 1950.

“Juvenile Jolt.” SF Chronicle. 5 Jun 1996.

Moore, Teresa. “Juvenile Hall Official Was About to Be Replaced.” SF Chronicle. 21 Oct 1996.

“SF State Scores First, then Bows to Poets, 41–20.” SF Chronicle. 14 Oct 1950. 

Smith, Rudy. Personal interview. Feb 2020.

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