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UA Little Rock Mourns Loss of Tonya Oaks Smith

Photo of Tonya Oaks Smith by Donny Crowe.
Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith

UA Little Rock is saddened to report the passing of Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith, an alumna and former communications employee at the university.

Smith, who served as the executive director of communications and marketing at Louisiana Tech University, passed away April 4. A Celebration of Life Service will be held for Smith on Monday, April 10, at University Hall at Louisiana Tech, with a visitation at 10 a.m. followed by a service at 11 a.m. She is survived by her husband of 28 years, Keith Smith, and their daughter, Rebekah Marshall.

Smith graduated from Louisiana State University in 1994. She put her journalistic skills to use as a reporter for the Livingston Parish News and later the Ruston Daily Leader. She joined the UA Little Rock Office of Communications and Marketing in 2006.

“Ever since I first met Tonya in 2009 when we worked together at UA Little Rock, I have admired her leadership, grace, and tenacity,” said Meaghan Milliorn, director of digital strategy. “She was supportive of everyone but also encouraged people to work hard and empower themselves. She was endlessly dedicated to helping students succeed and I will greatly miss her.”

She also joined UA Little Rock’s graduate school and earned a master’s degree in applied communication in 2010. Her master’s thesis was focused on the use of social media to communicate preventative health care advice during the H1N1 scare of 2009.

Smith visited UA Little Rock in 2019 to give a talk for the Department of Applied Communication’s Leadership Lecture Series. In her talk, “First, Do No Harm: Why Maintaining Integrity in Public Communication is More Important Than Ever,” listeners learned to unpack their perceptions and to hold public communication professionals to a higher standard.

“I absolutely enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the scholars in the Department of Applied Communication,” Smith said in a university article. “The first time I had to give a speech in the program, I had to have a trash can next to me because I felt so sick. That is how far the program has helped me grow. I would never be able to do this talk without having been in the program. I still recommend the program to people who need a graduate program to up their skill set.”

Prior to joining Louisiana Tech, Smith also worked as the executive director of marketing and communications at Henderson State University and director of communications at UA Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law. She received her Doctor of Education at Louisiana Tech University this year.

Cheryl Hellmann, director of University Television, said she’ll always be grateful to Smith for taking her by the hand and introducing her to Little Rock and the university when she first started here in 2008.

“I remember when the athletes were building a Habitat for Humanity house outside the then Alltel Arena,” Hellmann said. “I had no idea how to get there, so she took me, working as a tour guide along the way. Tonya introduced me to people on and off campus as well as the Southern way of getting things done.”

Once Smith started working at the Bowen School of Law, she and Hellmann produced the segment, “The Bowen Connection.”

“For 23 episodes, Tonya and a Bowen faculty member discussed a wide range of legal topics,” Hellmann said. “She was a natural on camera. Tonya was fun to work with, and I’m grateful to have had that privilege.”

Another former co-worker, Brandy Cochran, administrative specialist III, shared, “I had the privilege of working with Dr. Tonya Oaks Smith when she first came to UA Little Rock to work in the communications department. One thing I will always remember about her is that she always had a smile on her face. She will be sorely missed.”

Smith was actively involved in the international HighEdWeb Association where she served on the board and chaired national conferences and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

“Tonya Smith was an advocate for other women in the higher education field,” said Dr. Carrie Phillips, chief communications and marketing officer. “She continually mentored and elevated others. Her unique combination of wit and wisdom helped put others at ease and foster a sense of collaboration and camaraderie.”