Son of a Yorkshire doctor, Smeall went from Highgate School to Queens', Cambridge, where a First in English still left him time to appear as wing three-quarter for the university. After "finishing" at the Sorbonne, he went into schoolteaching, and in 1939, at the age of 32, was appointed headmaster of Chesterfield Grammar School. By 1945, however, he was looking for a new challenge.
Saint Luke's was the diocesan teacher training college in Exeter. Though small, it did not lack distinction. But in 1942 it had been bombed into total closure, and in 1945 many of its buildings were still rubble.
For rebuilding and recreating the college, Smeall adopted a time-honoured English ploy, seeking academic repute through manly sports, especially rugby. His scouts went round the schools to recruit good players. He himself refereed and coached. Success bred success, until in 1953-54 the first XV scored a record 1,000 points in a season. Altogether in his time the college produced 36 rugby internationals.
In other ways too it was a time of growth. New staff were appointed: Smeall chose well, and then let them get on with it. The students got good jobs, and many rose to headships. The staff were invited all over the world to lecture and advise. Smeall himself lectured more than once in Russia, typically not on education, which bored him, but on 18th-century English poetry and (surprisingly) dockyards.
Saint Luke's in fact was on the crest of a wave, and knew it. A college of education always had one strength denied to universities, namely a common focus uniting all its members. When student dissidence threatened in the late 1960s, Smeall made a rare declaration of principle: "The college does not belong either to its staff or to its students. It belongs to the children whom the students are being prepared to teach."
But what gave Saint Luke's the edge over its rivals was its style, Smeall's style. Among his staff appointments was the former MP Sir Richard Acland, whose family had given Killerton House to the National Trust. Smeall rented it back from the trust as a hall of residence, with Acland as its Warden. And, when the comedian Jimmy Edwards was playing in Exeter, Smeall invited him to speak to the students, had him elected to the non-existent office of Rector, and proceeded, in the exchange of com- pliments, to outwit the professional.
For, as befitted the author of English Satire, Parody and Burlesque (1952), he was a master of all forms of wit and humour. Alas, only a few of his mots are printable. (In notes on the staff left for his successor, he praised one colleague for his "impeccable taste in enemies".) Speaking on an official occasion as Mayor, he likened the new extension of a high- street bank to "an ancient Egyptian urinal". Reacting in 1968 to government pressure to admit women, he reported to his governors in revealing words: "I hope we shall be saved from sleazy touchline banshees, wrapped up in scarves and apparently ignorant of make-up." But when they came he welcomed them, for he was kind beneath the satire, just as he was shy behind the showmanship.
He also bowed to the inevitable. When "his" college was incorporated into Exeter University in 1978, he was consoled for the loss of its independence by the growing distinction of its new owners, and delighted by the award of an honorary degree in 1988. To a letter of congratulation then he replied typically: "I welcome any recognition that I am still alive."
James Leathley Smeall, teacher trainer: born Middlesbrough, Cleveland 16 June 1907; assistant master, Merchiston 1929-30; staff, Royal Naval College, Dartmouth 1930-34; Housemaster, Bradfield College 1934-36; Head of the English Department, Epsom College 1936-39; Headmaster, Chesterfield Grammar School 1939-45; Principal, St Luke's College, Exeter 1945-72; married 1936 Rachel Harris (died 1984; one daughter); died Exeter, Devon 24 February 1998.