My Dance Around the Country with Sam Smith

The students I worked with from the Salinas Valley were talented undergraduates. Many of them were inspired to go on to graduate school. I had developed two main pipelines for those interested in plant pathology and one of those was to my alma Unknownmater, Washington State University. I got my MS degree in Plant Pathology from WSU in 1986. I thought it was cool that a plant pathologist signed my diploma. Sam Smith was the President of WSU at the time and although he had an academic home in our department, I never met him while I was a cougar. Even cooler was that he had worked in my home state, Pennsylvania, before coming out west.

After one of my students at WSU received notice that she would receive an NSF-GRFP I got an email from Sam Smith. He was delighted that I was sending talented students to WSU and he wanted me to know that in fact, he and his wife hand grown up in Salinas (his wife on Williams Road) and were huge fans of Hartnell College (his wife is an alumna), the community college where most of my students started. He was excited to see the students from his home town at WSU and doing well. We had an amicable exchange and I even tried to get him invited to give a speech and to meet the students from Hartnell College and CSUMB (still working on that).

Fast forward to last year (yes it has been one year) I find myself taking Sam’s old job. Sam Smith was Head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Penn State from 1976 to 1981 (I was just graduating with my BS from OU when he was moving up to the deans office here at Penn State). I thought about writing to Sam first to let him know, but I thought it would be more entertaining to let him find out about my next move in our dance around the country, on his own. He sent me an email in July or 2015, before I even arrived in State College. His email echoed my response: “I was chuckling at the overlapping’s in our lives.”

So with a year under my belt I headed to Seattle and finally got to meet Sam. We met in his downtown Seattle office because like a lot of my friends, he has failed retirement. He is now continuing to help WSU raise funds for their important programs. It was an amusing meeting and Sam shared a lot of stories about some of you… He also told me a little about himself. I was tickled to learn that Sam and Caroleehe was the only man invited and one of two who did write a chapter for the important book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. This is a book I have recommended to several of my students from Salinas. It is a fascinating read. He carries with him a list of people he has mentored to success. Many university presidents’ careers were inspired from a conversation in Sam’s office. Just this week a previous alumnus told me about advice that Sam gave him that was essential to his success.

One important take away from the meeting for me is that there are lots of ways to fail at retirement. A beautiful downtown Seattle office with lots of alumni to talk to, sounds like a good choice, however, to make the story complete Sam may need to move to Corvallis and Lausanne.


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