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RIP Prof. Scott Smith, Historian and Humanist

By Andrew Berns ’02 and Mara Zepeda ’02 on July 27, 2017 12:10 PM

The Reed community mourns the loss of Prof. Scott Baldwin Smith, 53, visiting assistant professor of history, Russian, and humanities from 1997 to 2002. He succumbed to lung cancer on July 22, 2017, at his home in Southeast Portland, surrounded by family and close friends.

An electrifying and devoted teacher, Prof. Smith forever touched a generation of Reed students. Possessed of astonishing intellectual range, he taught courses in three departments, and across many boundaries: disciplinary, geographical, linguistic, and conceptual. A historian of the highest rank, he trained a cadre of Reed students who became professional historians and Slavists. He was equally committed to shaping the lives and minds of students who went on to do vital work outside of the academy. In his final days from his hospice bed, he gave a riveting lecture on sexual politics in Gogol’s “The Nose” to several former students, and described the thrill of revisiting his most beloved texts and seeing them with fresh eyes.

Born in Massachusetts, he attended Phillips Academy Andover, where his father Nat taught mathematics: pedagogy was in his DNA. After earning his BA at Yale in 1986, he attended Harvard University, where he was awarded an AM in 1991 and a PhD in 1995, both in history. For several years he served as a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard, before taking up a position as visiting assistant professor of history and humanities at Reed.

An extraordinary researcher and elegant writer, Smith produced scholarship that has left an indelible mark on his field. His 2011 book, Captives of Revolution: The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik Dictatorship, 1918-1923, was the result of years of archival research abroad and was hailed as a major achievement. His innovative work was supported by competitive grants and fellowships from the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX), the International Institute for Social History, and the Mellon Foundation.

Yet it was in the lecture hall and seminar room where he heard and answered his true calling. Students will never forget the courses he taught on the Russian Revolution, Soviet history, Russian literature, political violence, and modern European humanities. Close readings and intense discussions of dense texts were leavened by his humor, wit, and incomparable skills as a raconteur. He astonished and delighted students with tales of a night spent in a Moscow cage for the inebriated; confrontations with surly Soviet archivists; and muggings suffered at the hands of Petersburg ruffians. No one who heard them can forget his tri- or quadrilingual jokes from eastern Europe that he would patiently and humorously explain to his largely monoglot audience.

In the best spirit of a Reed professor, and in a way few others could, he had an uncanny ability to make the past live and breathe. He performed such resuscitations on books, films, art and ideas whose provenance lay far beyond his own speciality. From humanities papers to thesis chapters, he used his sharp eye and mordant wit to mold his students into better writers, clearer thinkers, and kinder and more curious people. His generosity of time and spirit with students was unparallelled: he would routinely meet with them for hours on end and share his erudition and insight. For this reason, students embarked on a heartfelt and multi-year campaign to retain him. But in 2002 he took a job at Linfield College, where he finished his career as professor of history and touched countless more lives.

Friend and fellow squash player Prof. Nigel Nicholson says:

Scott was a fixture in the Portland squash scene until injuries limited his playing and opened the way for cycling to take center stage in his sporting life. A member first of the Lloyd Athletic Club, and then of the Multnomah Athletic Club, as well as a keen user of the new Reed courts when he was teaching here, he competed regularly in tournaments and in the City League, where he played in the top spot for his team for many years. Everyone enjoyed playing with him, and in the close confines of a squash court, where the players share the same space, you really get to know people well. He was a lefty, fit, competitive, and disciplined, but unfailingly generous, courteous, and fair, and he always enjoyed a good chuckle, and made us all chuckle too with this keen observations on the oddities of Portland’s close squash community. His younger daughter Hannah loved squash also, and went on to captain Brown’s team, and, even after his hip really didn’t permit it, he would be seen on the courts hitting with her. He has many friends and fans in the squash community and will be much missed.

Prof. Douglas Fix, who offered care and companionship in his final year of life, shares:

For two years (from the fall of 1997 through the summer of 1999) Scott and I were “next-door office mates,” and our early mornings were often filled with Scott’s recent teaching anecdotes and war stories from days in the archives. When the stream of students subsided each afternoon, I was again the beneficiary of Scott’s quick wit and sound advice. When we picked up those discussions more recently, it was as if fifteen years had been compressed into a weekend. If these were new tales of post-Reed experiences (such as guiding students through Moscow markets) or updates on his daughters’ accomplishments, the knack of narrating them was the same: riveting stories, filled with humor, and enabling the belief that Scott was just temporarily away from our offices and the classroom. As I mourn his passing, I’m humbled by Scott’s courage, presence of mind and concern for us all in the last months and days of his life.

The Russian writer Alexander Herzen, one of Smith’s heroes, observed: “life has taught me to think, but thinking has not taught me to live.” Smith embodied this maxim: he loved life as much as he loved learning and teaching. An avid squash player, his skills and sportsmanship still enchant Portland’s squash community. He was also a cook, cyclist, mountaineer, traveler, and supporter of criminal justice initiatives in Multnomah County. Though his collegiality, intellectual ferocity, and personal integrity endure in the hearts and minds of those whom he touched, he will be deeply missed and mourned by family, colleagues, friends, students and former students like us who only wish he could have been granted more time in his beloved city, and on this earth.

He is survived by his wife, Lisa Hay, and their daughters Hannah, 22, and Sarah, 24. The family has created an award in his name at Linfield College.

He will be remembered at a service in Portland on Saturday, July 29 at 4 p.m. with a reception to follow. Please send an email to ScottBaldwinSmithMemorial@gmail.com for the location.