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Smith, Marie F.

Marie F. Smith


Association executive

Marie F. Smith served as national president of AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, between 2004 and 2006. During her tenure she worked to raise awareness on several issues championed by the thirty-five-million member organization, including Social Security reform and age discrimination. "I think one misperception is that once you reach a certain age, maybe 60, you're no longer useful," she told Joy Bennett Kinnon in Ebony. "This image of a sickly, useless individual has been prevalent as far back as I can remember, and we know that this is not true—we know this from our members."

Smith cited her grandmother as an important role model for her when she was growing up in Illinois. Her grandmother enjoyed a long career as a probation officer and was also politically active for much of her adult life. As a young woman, Smith entered the University of Illinois, but as she divulged in an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger in 2005, the school "wasn't well integrated. You couldn't join a sorority except for black sororities. I wanted to be on the cheering squad, and that was out." She transferred to Nashville's Fisk University, a historically black college, where she worked toward her bachelor of science degree in biology and premed while a member of the cheerleading squad. She also met her first husband there, who went on to medical school in Chicago. Eager to begin work full time when they arrived in the city, Smith took the federal civil service exam and was hired as a claims representative at the local Social Security office. She recalled her first day of work, when a single mother who was newly widowed sat at her desk. "She had just lost her husband and was beside herself," Smith said in the Star-Ledger interview. "I was able to tell her how much she would get, how much her children would get. I watched her change. We literally saved her life."

Smith went on to spend the next twenty-five years with the Social Security Administration, relocating several times for either promotions or for her husband's job. She earned a certificate in public affairs from Stanford University and rose to become a director of manpower management and organizational planning at the agency, which administers the nation's social insurance programs. It assigns Social Security numbers to individuals, and then keeps track of earnings over the person's work years. Payroll deductions from workers fund their individual pension accounts, which a person may start collecting at age sixty-two. The agency also administers a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits program, which aids the visually impaired, disabled, or elderly with no lifetime earnings record.

Smith spent part of her career managing the Social Security office on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where she and her second husband created a tropical garden on their property that they rented out for weddings and other festive events. Her work with AARP began when she volunteered for its Women's Initiative Program, and she eventually became the program's spokesperson. She moved on to a seat on the AARP National Legislative Council, and became its chair before an appointment to the AARP board of directors.

AARP is a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of Americans over the age of fifty. It was founded in 1958 as an offshoot of the National Retired Teachers Association, and as the baby-boomer population began nearing retirement age in the 1990s, its ranks swelled to become the world's largest nonprofit group. Its name change to "AARP" in 1999 reflected its new focus on Americans aged fifty and above, not just retirees.

Smith was voted AARP's president-elect in 2002, and advanced to her own two-year term in April of 2004 as national president and spokesperson. During her first year, AARP launched a historic "Voices of Civil Rights" bus tour along with the U.S. Library of Congress, which collected oral histories of those who had taken part in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The bus, which featured unique interactive exhibits, followed the Freedom Ride trail, the bus route that brought voting-rights volunteers to parts of the South where racism was deeply entrenched. "The Freedom Rides of the 1960s were historic, and this bus trip will honor and save that memory," Smith told Jason B. Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle. "These powerful recollections will be preserved and passed down to future generations, to both educate and inspire Americans of tomorrow."

One of the most important issues for Smith and the AARP involved Social Security reform. U.S. President George W. Bush had proposed several changes to Social Security benefits. The changes would disproportionately affect older African Americans, an estimated 40 percent of whom rely solely on Social Security income during their retirement years, compared with 19 percent of whites in the same age group. "Those benefits are all that stand between those beneficiaries and living in poverty," she was quoted by Elizabeth Auster as saying in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Bush Administration had also argued that its proposed changes could actually help African-American men, who die sooner than their spouses or white counterparts and therefore collect less of their paid-in lifetime earnings on average. On behalf of the AARP, Smith spoke out publicly against many of the ideas put forth by the Bush Administration. "I know Social Security can make a difference," she told writer James Bernstein in Newsday. "My mother worked at home, as did many women of her generation. When my father died, because of Social Security, my mother lived with dignity all her life."

Smith was not the first African American to lead AARP: Margaret A. Dixon achieved that milestone back in 1996. In 2006 Smith stepped down as AARP national president and spokesperson. She was uninterested in retirement, however, and returned to her multiple work interests in real estate consulting and freelance writing; she is also a certified hypnotherapist. "When people say they're bored, I think, ‘How can you say that?’" she told the Star-Ledger. "Everything interests me."

At a Glance …

Born on March 12, 1939, in East St. Louis, IL; daughter of David and Christina Ford; married first husband (marriage ended); married Richard Stanley Smith, December 13, 1986; stepchildren: Jeffrey, Reginald, Laurie Debrotz. Education: Attended the University of Illinois; Fisk University, BS, biology and premedical studies, 1961; earned a certificate in public affairs from Stanford University.

Career: U.S. Social Security Administration, began as claims representative, became office manager, management analyst, and director of manpower management and organizational planning; real estate consultant and freelance writer; Women's Initiative Program, AARP, began as volunteer, became spokesperson; joined the AARP National Legislative Council, became chair; named to AARP board of directors; AARP, national president and spokesperson, 2004-06; certified hypnotherapist.

Memberships: Zonta International; National Association of Retired Federal Employees; African American Heritage Foundation of Maui.

Awards: Woman of Excellence Award, Commission on the Status of Women; Commissioner's Citation, Social Security Administration; Named one of America's 100 Most Influential African-American Leaders, Ebony magazine, 2004; named one of 25 Influential Black Women in Business, Network Journal, 2006.

Addresses: Office—c/o AARP, 601 E St. NW, Washington, DC 20049.



Ebony, August 2006, p. 124.

Executive Speeches, June-July 2005, p. 28.

Newsday (New York), February 27, 2004, p. A57.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 18, 2005, p. A1.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 2004, p. B1.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 26, 2005, p. 25.


"Marie F. Smith—National President, A.A.R.P., Washington, D.C.," Network Journal, (accessed August 25, 2008).

Smith, Marie F., "AARP's Commitment to Diversity,", July 7, 2004, (accessed August 25, 2008).


"Marie Smith" (interview), Tavis Smiley, PBS, March 28, 2005, (accessed August 25, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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