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Sherry Smith Q&A

PhD 1984, History, University of Washington
MA 1974, American Studies, Purdue University
BA 1972, History, Purdue University

Professional History
Distinguished Professor, History Department, Southern Methodist University
Associate Director, William B. Clements Center for Southwest Studies
Associate Professor, History Department, University of Texas, El Paso
Author of 30 books, articles, and publications

President, Western History Association
Los Angeles Times Distinguished Fellowship, Huntington Library
Calvin Horn Lecturer, University of New Mexico
James A. Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for College Teachers
Fulbright Senior Lecturer, University of Otago, New Zealand
And others

Why did you decide to study at Purdue University?

Several factors went into my decision to attend Purdue: affordability, location--far enough from home….but not too far, academic excellence, and family tradition (my older sisters had attended). Although as a history, rather than an engineering, major I probably should have gone to Indiana University in Bloomington, my parents really didn’t want me to go so far away (it would have been a five hour  one-way drive rather than a two hour one-way drive). And as it turned out the History Department at Purdue was terrific. I received an excellent education in West Lafayette.

Describe some of the people, courses, or experiences that led to your success while at Purdue.

From the first course I took under the History Department’s auspices, I was hooked – even though it was a basic United States History survey with lectures in one of the huge engineering building lecture halls with 500 (at least I think it was that many….) other students. Although I came to college with an interest in history, university-level studies really opened my eyes to the complexities of  historical experience and the possibilities of scholarly study. One of the texts in this introductory course was a collection of primary sources – my first contact with the building blocks of history – the voices of the past. I LOVED reading these documents and discussing them in the smaller discussion sections we had once a week with about 25 students. (I first met Prof. Don Parman in one of these sections). We were also introduced to the idea that history is a discipline based not only on archival research but thought, interpretation, and argument. The freedom to think critically and independently (rather than simply memorize facts) excited me. My written work reflected my enthusiasm and, perhaps, aptitude for historical work. I remember my history teaching assistant wrote on one of my very first exams: “you have restored my faith in mankind.” This affirmation of my abilities—in my first semester at Purdue-- certainly encouraged me to pursue history.

Several faculty, in particular, proved especially important to my undergraduate studies – including Professors Don Parman and Don Berthrong whose specialties were Native American and American West – fields I eventually pursued in graduate studies. I had never been to the West but Prof. Parman’s course transported me there. I stayed up late at night reading books for extra credit – about fur trapper Jedidiah Smith, the Mountain Meadows Massacre; Indian removal.  I did this extra work because I was deeply interested, but I must admit the hope of  improving my grade also played a role. Alas, I could never quite figure out what Prof. Parman was looking for on his exams and ended up with a B in that course….we still laugh about that today. Professors Harold Woodman and Robert May were marvelous models of excellent teacher/scholars….offering fascinating courses at the same time they published outstanding books and helped raise the History Department’s national reputation. And Prof. Blaine Brownell was probably most responsible for my ending up in the professorate. I went to Purdue expecting that upon graduation I would be a high school teacher. I’ll never forget the moment when Prof. Brownell asked me, as we were crossing the mall outside University Hall: “have you ever considered getting a Ph.D?” It was NOT something I had ever considered. That he thought I was capable literally changed my life. If he had not asked me that question, I would never have left my noble, but perhaps less academically ambitious, goal. I have realized ever since – I have the same power to help shape my students’ lives. It’s an awesome responsibility!

So, in sum,  the excellent teaching in the History Department coupled with the personal attention particular professors gave to me – a skinny kid from Hammond, Indiana – led to my academic success at Purdue and gave me the foundation for the professional successes I’ve experienced ever since.

Describe your favorite experiences at Purdue as a student.

I often tell my students that the years 1968-1972 were the best years in the 20th century to be a college student. The nation was in turmoil, to be sure, and young men were being drafted and sent to Vietnam, some of them never to return. But it was also a very exciting time. Everything seemed to be in flux. Older patterns of behavior – in all aspects of life – were being challenged, rethought and reconfigured. For example, on matters related to gender: my first year at Purdue was the LAST year freshmen women had “hours,” deadlines by which they were to be snug in their dorm room beds every night. It was also, I believe, the last year women students were required to wear skirts in the Student Union. I remember during freshman orientation attending the Green Guard event (Green Guards being sophomore women who wrote letters to incoming freshwomen offering advice, friendship, etc.) at Slater Center and the editor of the Exponent made an announcement about how to obtain birth control at the Student Health Center. Clearly I wasn’t in high school anymore! Not only were gender “barriers” to equality crashing down but even here in the middle of Indiana’s cornfields, people were wearing buttons that proclaimed “Question Authority.” During antiwar demonstrations students would come into class and challenge us to think about why we were attending class rather than protesting the war. It was impossible, actually, to avoid the huge issues of the day….and I found all of it tremendously stimulating.  The disaster at Kent State happened during my sophomore year and I remember (though did not participate in) the takeover of the Armory Building. I did participate in the sit-in at the Student Union my freshman year, although the issue there was less altruistic – protesting a raise in tuition. In response to the student protests President Hovde spoke to the student body about the issue and I learned that collective power could be effective – though, in this case,
the tuition hike ultimately went into effect in spite of the sit-in.

So, my “favorite experiences” were those linked to the excitement, vitality and challenges of living in a university community during a time of tremendous political and social change. I relished the opportunity to figure out for myself  “the right thing to do.”  I welcomed the freedom to think independently and anew that was afforded by the times…and by the brave souls who kicked down the doors of convention for me and others. I cannot claim to have been in the vanguard but I was an appreciative follower.

Of course, the late Sixties and early Seventies were also times of great change regarding race relations in this country. Purdue’s student body was not particularly diverse racially or ethnically. But I did enroll in Blaine Brownell’s African American history course. I believe there were about 75 students in the class and a large proportion of those students were black. What made it particularly interesting to me was Blaine Brownell was from Alabama. I remember thinking the first day of class: no way is this guy going to be able to carry this off. But he was spectacular. First, it was a revelation to me that someone from Alabama could be liberal on issues of race. (Too many news accounts of Bull Conner, I guess, and little interaction with actual Southerners!). Second, he was perfect at diffusing the inevitable tensions that arose in that class. He handled the topic and the students with sensitivity, grace, and style. So, that was a “favorite experience” and a lesson to me that if a white Alabaman could teach a course on African American history in 1969 and succeed, then maybe all of us could somehow overcome our personal, family and regional histories and reach out to achieve greater understanding and communication with others. 

What have been the most fulfilling professional and/or personal accomplishments in your life?

Professionally, I have been most fulfilled by publishing my books and winning a national award, for Reimagining Indians, from the Organization of American Historians for the best book on race relations. That kind of public recognition is….well, just sweet. Academic history books usually don’t sell that well so the rewards come in the acknowledgement from your peers that what you have written has value. I get a greater joy out of seeing my books and articles cited by other historians than I do from the royalty checks (although it is fun to learn that people use my books in their own history courses….it expands your potential influence beyond a handful of scholars). It means that I have truly contributed to knowledge and that’s what it is all about.

 I would add that being named President of the Western History Association was a professional highpoint. Holding that office means your peers acknowledge the value of your entire professional career – not just a particular element of it. Moreover, it  allowed me the opportunity to shape not only the organization’s annual conference but the organization itself. We are about to celebrate our 50th anniversary and want to see the WHA live on to its centennial. But to do so, it must also meet the needs of new generations of scholars. It’s been fun to strategize about how to do that and to welcome new people into leadership roles (through committee assignments, etc.).

My current position as Los Angeles Times Distinguished Fellow at the Huntington Library has been the best year of my professional career. The Huntington Lilbrary is situated in beautiful, sunny Southern California on the grounds on a former estate with magnificent gardens. I have the whole year to do “my own work” – finish a book and start another. It’s heaven on earth to a history-nerd like me.

Finally, the kindness and support of my Purdue professors provided a model of how to encourage those who have followed me. And it has been most satisfying to mentor younger scholars. At my various teaching homes I have remembered the affirming words of Professors Brownell, Parman, and Berthrong and that long-ago teaching assistant – and now I write on deserving essays “you have restored my faith in mankind” and ask particularly promising students, “have you ever considered getting a Ph.d. in history?”

As for personal accomplishments, I would say it has been most fulfilling to find a balance between the professional and personal. The two, actually, are rather seamless for me….in part, because I am married to another historian, Robert W. Righter. But also because our life away from the university has integrated our commitment to history, scholarship, and historic preservation (see below) into our everyday lives.  The personal and the professional are constantly reinforcing each other in my life and for that I am grateful.

Describe your views on the role and importance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

The world has changed so quickly and dramatically since I left Purdue. But my liberal arts education prepared me to embrace change and welcome new challenges by arming me with the basic skills of critical reading and thinking, written and oral communication, and independence of thought. This is not a particularly creative response to the question – but it is my honest answer: a liberal arts education provides you with the fundamental skills to understand a changing world and engage with it. Further, a history degree offers much needed intellectual context – it is foundational to so many other academic and every-day endeavors. Without knowing history, or knowing where to get information about it, one goes through life with “blinders” on. History unlocks so many doors, helps explain so much about our world. I can’t imagine an education without it!

What does Purdue mean to you today?

In personal terms Purdue means the place where I discovered myself….my calling in life….and the place that provided me with the encouragement and  skills to pursue it. Although it was a very large school (my brother went to Wabash and we used to argue about which was better – large public vs. small private) I found everything I was looking for in a university education at Purdue, including the kind of personal attention and encouragement one might not expect at such a big school. I tell people, it’s not a matter of the school’s size but the nature of your own personality that determines what you get out of your education. If you want engagement with professors, you can have it – even in large classes at large, state supported universities.
      Beyond that I see Purdue as an outstanding educational institution – a real bargain for Hoosiers, in particular. Wherever I have gone in this country, when I  have mentioned my affiliation with Purdue, people are always impressed. They say, “that’s a great school.” And I agree.

What “tidbit of wisdom” would you offer to today’s students/graduates?

Well, writing this in the midst of an extended recession I may be seen as a lunatic when I say this – but my advice is: study what you love and don’t worry about a job. Look upon your years at Purdue as an opportunity to study and learn about whatever interests you and excites you. Jobs, professions, paychecks, health insurance are all critical to a successful life….but they will come. In the meantime, trust me. Take this special time in your life to study what really “grabs you.” It’s a rare moment of relative freedom and you need to take advantage of it. From the very beginning of my pre-freshman year summer when I told people I was going to study history at Purdue and become a teacher, people said: but there are no jobs in that profession! (And they were talking about secondary education…not even college/university teaching where the job opportunities have been even more dire). But I blithely ignored such comments and continued on my merry way….studying what mattered to me, pursuing my academic passions, and figuring I would never find a job in the field. Well, I got lucky….though it wasn’t easy, particularly in the early stages of my career when I had a series of one-year, nonrenewable positions. And to be honest, some of my graduate school colleagues never did find positions as professors – but neither did they starve to death! They found other satisfying and probably more remunerative positions. So: follow your heart….and, of course, your mind. Study for the purpose of self realization and nourishment, not for a job.

Regarding your volunteer and community projects: What project are you most proud of and why?

My husband and I spend our summers at our cabin near Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) in Wyoming. Bob has written a book about Grand Teton and we have both been involved in historic preservation in Wyoming and Teton County, in particular. The GTNP has a history of resisting history and cultural resources, preferring to see its “natural resources” – mountains, wildlife, etc. – as the important ones. But the park has a rich history and some important historic buildings and for over twenty years we have worked, fought (sometimes), and occasionally succeeded at preserving some of these cultural resources. My own favorite is that of a single woman homesteader’s cabin and outbuildings. If I were to have a headstone like Thomas Jefferson’s, whereon he wrote the various accomplishments of his life he took pride in, mine would include: she helped save Geraldine Lucas’ homestead from the wrecking ball.  I believe history is critical to our understanding of the world….and historic preservation is critical to putting people in literal touch with our past. Geraldine’s place also makes it clear – the world includes both men AND women.

What hobbies or pastimes fill your nonworking hours?

When in Wyoming I love to float the Snake River in our raft while my husband fly-fishes. I usually bring a book to read. Travel is another of my passions and I’ve managed to visit all of the continents except for Antarctica. I would like to take up painting….perhaps in retirement.

What does recognition as a distinguished alum mean to you?

It means that my parents, siblings, professors, and husband deserve much of the credit for anything I have achieved to date. My parents instilled in all their children a love of learning and an appreciation of history, in particular. They encouraged us to read, think, and write. They expected us to excel in school but never pressured us. My siblings served as important role models. Being the youngest of four children meant I always knew less, had to work harder to keep up, and so on. Consequently,  I learned a tremendous amount from my older sisters and brother and that remains true to this day. Finally, as my comments above indicate, my Purdue professors were absolutely critical to my life’s work. They helped me define my professional goals and they helped me achieve them. We are all products of our family, education, and era. I have been remarkably lucky to have lived in such interesting times with the love, encouragement and support of such wonderful people.