Jennifer White Smith, superintendent of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, has a 100,000-watt smile, one that illustrates what it means to say a person is “beaming.”
In conversation, she telegraphs her boundless enthusiasm for New Bedford, its history, and its national park.
You could say that she and the park were dedicated on the same day. Having started as a volunteer in 1997, her first shift as an employee was the park’s dedication day: May 17, 1998.
From a seasonal park ranger 25 years ago, White Smith rose to be chief of visitor services and acting superintendent of New Bedford’s park before becoming site manager at Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence in 2008. Returning to New Bedford in 2014, she served in several roles before she was appointed superintendent in March 2019.
Raising three children while attending evening classes at UMass Dartmouth for 10 years, White Smith graduated in 2000 with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature with minors in Judaic studies and women’s studies. She went on to earn a master’s in community planning with a concentration in historic preservation and urban design from the University of Rhode Island in 2004.
“Jennifer’s optimism and unflappability has a way of clearing the clouds away,” historian Kathryn Grover wrote about the superintendent in the acknowledgments for a 2021 national park publication. That upbeat spirit buoyed White Smith as she navigated a cancer diagnosis in 2017 and the punishing treatment that followed at Rhode Island Hospital. She shared her journey on social media, inspiring many, and emerged with deep gratitude for the gift of life.
Proud to call New Bedford her hometown, White Smith resides at Clark’s Point (the South End peninsula) with her husband, Christian Smith.
In this interview with the New Bedford Light, the park superintendent shares what she loves about her job, what she’s learned professionally and personally, and what New Bedford means to her.
New Bedford Light: Is this your dream job?
Jennifer White Smith: Absolutely. Are you kidding me? I mean, take a look out the window [gesturing to the sweeping view over the historic district to the harbor]. New Bedford is my place. The fact that I get to be part of a national organization that has a spot in New Bedford, to get that national and regional support and bring it here, but also to work with the people here that I get to work with at the park and then with the partners and in this community, and just getting to talk up this place, right? And this history.
Absolutely. I truly don’t know anything else. I’ve done this my whole adult life. But yeah, I can’t imagine a position where it would all come together as nicely as it does in this one for me.
NBL: You became site manager at Roger Williams National Memorial in November 2008. Was that a learning experience in how to manage?
JWS: It was eye-opening for me. We had a pretty small but mighty interdisciplinary team here in New Bedford. We had an administrative person, for instance, who did a great job with the budget, and I ran the visitor services program, but I didn’t really have to think about budget — this person, that’s what they did. And I was more than happy to let them deal with numbers and I could deal with the people. I got over to Roger Williams National Memorial and they were like “Here, take a look at the status of funds,” and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this looks like another language to me.” I didn’t know how to interpret it. So of course I called the New Bedford administrative person and said, “I need a tutorial!” So, that kind of stuff was new to me. It was just out of the frying pan and into the fire, and trying to figure it out.
And that’s fine, because those technical skills you can figure out. What I brought with me from New Bedford, that was easy — plug and play — so a little bit opposite of your question: community partnerships, activating a place that’s already kind of super cool, but on the edge of coolness, and how do we amplify that, and who do we reach out to.
So as I was learning things like budget and agreements, all the technical side of the house, we were reaching out to every single person who expressed an interest in our work and what we were doing. I looked around, and it was a four-and-a-half acre green space in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in this country — and it was a little sleepy.
There was a staff there that was willing to take risks and try new stuff. They were just ready to roll. So it was sort of combustible … waiting for the spark in a really fun way. We spent six years activating that site and selling it and talking up the park service and making the Roger Williams story super cool, which it already kind of was, and we just made it cooler. …
The other side of the work that I learned a lot about there was maintenance … We had a maintenance person, but I learned a lot about facility management and turf management. I learned a lot about dealing with social issues in a bigger city than New Bedford, and how to sort of not just manage them but help people. …
I used to [say] Providence was a little bigger pond than New Bedford. So anyway, it was just a lot of fun. Small team, but great will and desire and huge risk takers to try new things.
NBL: In 2017, you were diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. You were inspirational in how you shared your fight with the community. How did your cancer journey change you?
JWS: You’d have to be a statue to not have something like that change you. I appreciate that you called it inspirational, because looking back, it was so self-serving. I’m just trying to be honest about it. … I didn’t know anything. You hear “You have cancer,” but then you hear “leukemia” and you’re like, “Oh, people die from that.” …
So my first thought was, I need to throw this out on Facebook. I’ve got to tell everybody what’s going on, because I’m going to disappear for a month. The only thing I knew was they said “We need you to stay in the hospital for 30 days.” [She eventually had four rounds of chemotherapy, necessitating four months in isolation.]
But yes, it changed me, and I leaned so hard on my Facebook community. There were people that I knew and had known since school that are friends on there. And there is family that lives away, so it was a way for me to keep them looped in. But then people started jumping on the story and then The Standard-Times did a story and then the National Park Service carried it. And next thing you know, I’ve got like … hundreds more friend requests. …
[Some] people are private — a heck of a lot more private than I — and I respect that. I just chose a whole different way. I have heard from people that I am an inspiration to them and that I taught them something, but gosh, I learned so much from it. The journey continues. I do truly look at that four months of intense treatment and all of that as a detour and a blip in my life path.
I have had some fallout from it. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. I have anxiety. I never had anxiety before this. So there are things that I do have to manage and there are things in my daily life that continue to remind me about it, but I have done nothing but live my life to the fullest extent since January 1, 2018. That’s my goal. … I have been given a gift.
I went through treatment with people who did not make it, people far more healthy than I. But I’ve got this genetic makeup that turns out does OK with this. It’s an absolute crap shoot. It’s an absolute roll of the dice. And so I don’t want to squander that gift or opportunity. I love life, and I am eternally grateful.
NBL: What is the indispensable fact that you want people to know about New Bedford history?
JWS: The thing we’re really working hard to help people understand is that New Bedford wasn’t necessarily made up of just a bunch of rich, white, savior people who were going to save these “poor escaped slaves.” Au contraire. New Bedford was a free black community that had successful black individuals and black families here, people who are actually entrepreneurs, who were doing deals with people like [whaling merchants] Rotch and Rodman, not necessarily 100% at the table, but way more at the table here than anywhere else.
So this Underground Railroad history that New Bedford has — folks show up a lot with misconceptions about it. They’re looking for tunnels. They’re talking about these white saviors that are here helping these poor, escaping slaves and they just don’t know the full story. The fact of the matter is that New Bedford didn’t need to have tunnels, because you could be a free black person and walk the streets without having to hide — except for a period when the Fugitive Slave Act was in full force, I understand that — but for the most part.
I don’t want to go so far [as to call it the] land of opportunity, because we all know that folks like [Frederick] Douglass were not able to work in his trade here. He launched from New Bedford into his next big life and career, but you know, it wasn’t 100% the land of opportunity. We’re working really hard to tell the truths around that story. …
I guess the other thing I want to offer up just very briefly: I really find it fascinating to tell people that these whaling merchants — Rotch, Rodman, Russell, all those folks — they were the Bezos, Gates, Murdochs of their time, and the structure … that they were working within is not that dissimilar from the income structure we have today in this country: lots of folks at the top making a lot of money, lots of folks at the bottom struggling.
NBL: You said in a recent Facebook post that John Bullard’s example inspired you to study urban planning. What kind of role model do you want to be?
JWS: Any young people from New Bedford, if I have an opportunity to engage with them, I always start out with, “Go Whalers!” [I say] I’m from New Bedford, I grew up on Clasky Common. Have you ever sledded on Clasky Common? Do you play basketball there? I went to the lunch program down there. We did arts and crafts. I open up with that every time. …
My parents were educated people. They were at the university here. I had role models and mentors in my life, but I also know that there were kids who I grew up with that didn’t have people in their life that they could look up to, or they wanted to aspire to be like. I just want kids to know that you can come from New Bedford, and you can go to the summer lunch program and the arts and crafts program, and have a hard time in school, and get in a little trouble here and there. But you know what? You can be something. You can be a superintendent of a national park and come from New Bedford. You can serve on the New Bedford Historical Commission. You can be on the planning committee. You can do all these things that maybe you don’t realize.
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How do I want to be inspirational? I want to be accessible. Those two words to me are kind of equal. I want people to come chat with me. I want to know about people. I want to know what people’s dreams are, and aspirations, and what their issues are. What are the challenges they’re facing here? I love this city, but I don’t look at it with rose-colored glasses. We have some challenges here. …
I want kids to stay in school, but I also want kids to know that if you’re having some challenges and need to try another path, that there are multiple ways to get to where you want to get. Setting simple goals for yourself is the place to start. I think the simple goal that I had set was I wanted to contribute to New Bedford. That was my goal. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to do it, but I knew this place was at the core of my success and my future.
NBL: Your first experience with the national historical park was as a volunteer. Are you still a volunteer for organizations today, and why do you think volunteerism is important?
JWS: What a great question. I guess not formally, but I certainly do volunteer my time in a lot of ways. One of the things that my husband and I are working on — he’s the main proponent and worker on it — is a pollinator garden in New Bedford, up at Victory Park. That is certainly something that he and I are working on together, and the volunteering part is cleaning, planting, mulching, all of that good stuff. Starting plants — we’ve got, I don’t know, about 30 common milkweeds and butterfly weeds starting right now, ready to go in the ground up there.
So not formally, but I am a great believer in volunteerism. I think about volunteerism almost as two ends of one’s life. So — not that you can’t do it in the middle, but I know you’re kind of busier when you’re in the middle — but someone may be coming up and looking to hone, or to gain and then to hone some skills, could come here and learn a whole bunch of things about working with the public, working to protect resources. We have an administrative side, obviously, to the work. We have maintenance folks, too. So someone may be coming up and trying to build a resume. It’s a great opportunity to volunteer.
And then there’s the other side, right? So when you’ve worked in a career, or you’ve done a lot of things in your life, think of all that you have then to offer to organizations that need your help, and skills, and abilities. So let’s be honest, budgets are tight, staff is stretched, and so to have a volunteer corps of people who are passionate and have the same beliefs as you do about whatever it is — visiting folks, or pollinator gardens, or sailing, any of that stuff — it’s invaluable. It’s just invaluable. Our volunteers are invaluable resources to us, and we appreciate it.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.