In Memoriam

Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

Prof. Scott Baldwin Smith [Russian 1997–2002]

An electrifying and devoted teacher, Prof. Scott Baldwin Smith was committed to shaping the lives and minds of students to do vital work outside of the academy. As a visiting assistant professor of Russian, history, and humanities, he was a historian of the highest rank, and trained a cadre of Reed students who became professional historians and Slavists. He succumbed to lung cancer at his home in Southeast Portland, surrounded by family and close friends. 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.

Pedagogy was in Smith’s DNA. He was born in Massachusetts and attended Phillips Academy Andover, where his father taught mathematics. 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 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. Smith’s innovative work was supported by competitive grants and fellowships from the International Research and Exchanges 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 specialty. 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 unparalleled: 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.

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.

Smith 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. —by Andrew Berns ’02 and Mara Zepeda ’02

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2017

comments powered by Disqus