By Chris Guthrie
Even though Dick Smith died over twenty years ago, his influence is still felt in many ways throughout the Tarleton community. The “Dick Smith Library,” named in honor of his generosity and intellectual leadership, remains the academic heart of this campus. Numerous talented students who major in the College of Arts and Sciences are able to attend Tarleton due to the availability of “Dick Smith Scholarships,” which he endowed in his will. Perhaps most importantly, the memory of his devotion to excellence in the classroom, to open and free intellectual inquiry, and his impatience with mediocrity, sterile pedantry, and bureaucratic nitpicking continues to inform the attitudes and values of many Tarleton faculty. Much of what is best about Tarleton State University today can be traced back to the influence and dedication of Dr. Dick Smith.
Smith was born on September 9, 1908 in Milford, Texas, but grew up in Breckenridge. His father, Jesse R. Smith, served as a County Judge and one-term State Senator (1925-29) from Stephens County and his mother, Addie, taught high school in Breckenridge. After graduating from Breckenridge High School, Smith went to Tarleton in 1926 and finished his undergraduate education at the University of Texas. After receiving his B.A. degree in 1930, Smith remained in Austin for an additional year to earn a M.A. degree in political science. A brilliant student, Smith then entered Harvard University to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. However, his mother became ill in 1932 and Smith returned to Texas after completing only one year of doctoral work. In 1933 Forrest Agee, assistant registrar and instructor of history at Tarleton, took leave of absence to command the Civilian Conservation Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To replace him, Dean J. Thomas Davis hired Smith, who desired to stay in Texas until his mother fully recovered. Smith would remain at Tarleton until his retirement in 1973.
In only a year, Smith received a promotion to associate professor of history and government (1934). However, he made up his mind to finish his residence requirements at Harvard before settling permanently in Stephenville, took leave of absence, and returned to the East Coast in 1935. Two years later, Smith returned to Tarleton and completed his dissertation while teaching at the college. He received his Ph.D. in 1939, becoming the second professor at Tarleton with a doctorate and the only one in the history of the school to have graduated with an advanced degree from Harvard.
Smith entered the Army after the outbreak of World War II and served as a field artillery corporal in Europe. Demobilized in 1946, Smith returned to Tarleton and was named head of the Department of History and Government in 1947 when R.L. Eaves, who had headed the department since 1923, retired. In 1948 the head of Economics and Sociology, G.O. Ferguson, also retired and his former department merged with history and government to create a new Department of Social Sciences under Smith.
As head of the Department of Social Sciences, Smith wielded a great deal of power. According to Dr. William Martin, Smith’s counterpart in the Department of English, department heads during the Howell years were allowed much more latitude within their specific spheres of expertise than they are today. Howell mainly concerned himself with the business, political, and public relations aspects of college administration and his chief assistant, Dean of Instruction Paul Cunyus, actually had little experience in academic affairs. More or less by default, department heads were allowed to run their areas pretty well as they saw fit with a minimum of interference from higher up the college hierarchy. Smith exploited this position to the fullest to create a department that became well known for its outstanding and often outspoken teachers. He could be a bit dictatorial in running this department but no one seems to have minded much due to his high sense of personal integrity, his devotion to the principles of academic freedom, and his insistence on classroom and scholarly excellence.
Smith never hesitated to criticize Tarleton’s administration when it bothered him. When administrators droned on too long at Academic Council meetings, Smith was infamous for reading magazines or working crossword puzzles during their talks as a not so subtle reminder that audience had better things to do. He also was quick to call out his “superiors” when they made a decision that he believed to be incorrect or an overreaction. His major weapon was caustic humor. One such example occurred late in the 1960s. At that time a hedge lined both sides of the sidewalk from the library to the Dining Hall. One night, when a coed was walking home from the library, a man jumped out from behind the hedge and “flashed” the shocked young lady. The next morning, President Trogden ordered the hedge completely destroyed to prevent a repetition of the incident. When Smith learned of Trogdon’s decision, his only comment was “I’m glad the s.o.b. [the flasher] didn’t do it in the library.”
Despite his sometimes-sarcastic attitude towards administrators, virtually every faculty member who worked for or with Smith remembers him fondly. “Dick Smith stories” still abound on campus today, all of them good-naturedly affectionate. Mr. John Pratt who taught English at Tarleton for nearly thirty years has numerous stories concerning Smith’s complete lack of mechanical ability. According to him, Smith was so lacking in this capacity that he once hired a student to install a hand-operated can opener on his kitchen wall. Evidently the mysteries of a screwdriver were just too much for him. Another famous story concerns a practical joke that Smith’s government students once tried to play on him. Shortly before class one day, a group of male students locked the door of the bathroom on the first floor of the Science Building while Smith was inside. They evidently planned to leave him there for a while and enjoy his discomfort and embarrassment. However, Smith was not about to contribute to their enjoyment. Instead of pounding on the door and demanding to be let out, Smith opened a window, climbed out, and somehow made it to the ground. He then re-entered the building and walked into his classroom as if nothing had happened. He never mentioned the incident to the class, never demanded to know the names of the culprits, thereby depriving the pranksters the satisfaction of knowing they rattled him.
Smith was known throughout campus as a tough and demanding teacher. He believed that Tarleton students were as capable as those anywhere else in the United States and taught them accordingly. His teaching style was simple. He did not use Socratic method of question and answer favored by his longtime friend and departmental colleague, O.A. Grant. Instead, he would enter the classroom with his notes, stand behind the lectern, and lecture (often smoking a cigarette). Each lecture was a treasure chest of factual knowledge and carefully formulated analysis. Many former students have commented that a Smith lecture on United States or Texas government was a true learning experience—an exhausting and exciting excursion into the subject. Nor was he content to rely on timeworn notes (as good as they were) and instead worked continually to keep his material up-to-date. Former student James Blackburn remembers Smith talking on the phone to a contact in Austin just moments before class began in order to obtain the latest information on a piece of pending legislation. Smith also expected his students to remember what he had taught them. His tests were notoriously difficult and caused a great deal of fear and angst among his students. As his former student Richard Cruz commented, “People said they were government majors with pride…The grades were tough to make…but it was something that people were proud of….”
Smith also found time to be one of the more active scholars to ever teach at Tarleton. He wrote two textbooks on Texas government in the 1940s: Texas Government (a college level textbook he co-authored with Stuart MacCorkle of the University of Texas) and Texas Civics (a high school textbook that he wrote with MacCorkle and Thomas P. Yoakum of San Marcus High School). Both books enjoyed tremendous success and were widely used throughout the state for decades. His Texas Government, in fact, went through six editions between 1948 and 1968. Smith also published numerous articles, such as “The Poll Tax in Texas” (Southwestern Social Science Quarterly) and “Texas’ New Mental Health Code” (Public Affairs Comments), as well as two well-known booklets on Texas government: How Bills Become Laws in Texas (1945) and A Layman’s guide to Texas State Administrative Agencies (1945). In addition to his writing, smith served as the political editor of the Southwestern Social Science Quarterly during the mid-1960s and was President of the Southwestern Political Science Association in 1968. A leading member of the Texas Citizens Committee for Constitutional Revision, Smith played a major role in drawing up a list of recommendations that would have made the state constitution less awkward and complicated. Unfortunately, various vested political interests in Austin preferred the cumbersome status quo, and the hard work of Smith’s committee went for naught. He nonetheless retained his commitment to an improved Texas constitution for the rest of his life and had just finished an article on the subject shortly before his death in 1974.
Smith remained head of the Department of Social Sciences until 1967, when he voluntarily stepped down in order to return to full-time teaching. Dr. O.A. Grant replaced him at the helm of the department. During his last six years at Tarleton, Smith received numerous awards for his service to his profession and college. In 1971 he was named an “Outstanding Educator of America” along with Dr. Jesse Tackett of the Agriculture Department. The following year, 1972, the Tarleton Ex-Students Association gave him its “Distinguished Faculty Member’ award. He retired from Tarleton in 1973 and received the honorary title of professor emeritus shortly thereafter. Smith died a year later, on January 6, 1974 from a heart attack. He was sixty-five years old.
Throughout his long career at Tarleton, Smith had always demonstrated a deep concern for the financial needs of students. Back in 1953, he had been the only faculty member to respond to the Tarleton Booster Club’s call for new scholarships for incoming students (all the others who provided scholarships during this campaign were either alumni and/or members of the Stephenville community. Smith’s will continued this practice. Smith died a wealthy man, the result of inheritance and royalties from his textbooks. He left the bulk of his fortune to Tarleton ($525,000), in the form of what became known as “Dick Smith Scholarships.” These scholarships were intended to meet the basic academic expenses of qualified majors (both undergraduate and graduate) from the College of Arts and Sciences. The exact amounts of the awards have been adjusted over the years to compensate for the escalating costs of attending college. They remain one of the main avenues of financial aid for many English, math, science, and social science majors.
Smith always demonstrated great generosity towards Tarleton’s library. In fact, he left instructions behind that mourners give monetary gifts to the Tarleton State University Library fund in lieu of flowers. In recognition and appreciation of his devotion to the library, the university named the building in his honor in March 1974. The Dick Smith Library remains a fitting monument to his dedication to education at Tarleton.
A recent publication on Tarleton traditions summed up Dick Smith’s contribution to this college with the following statement: “A bachelor, Tarleton was his family.” Although well meaning, this description was neither fair nor accurate. It makes Smith sound as if he was a lonely individual who devoted his life to the school because he had nothing or nobody else. Smith’s reasons for never marrying remain his own. But he had a full personal life, filled with a large number of close friends who cherish their relationship to him to this day. Given his insistence on intellectual precision and analytical rigor, Smith would have also found the “Tarleton as family” analogy (which is so frequently employed today) more than a little silly. Tarleton was not, and never will be, a “family.” It is a community made up of diverse people with equally diverse interests who are bound together by the fact that they work and learn at the same place. Smith enjoyed being a crucial part of this community and continually pushed it to meet his high standards of excellence. A much better summary of his legacy would be “he demanded only the best from his colleagues, from his students, and from himself.”
Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999. pp. 385-388.