Celebrating the Life of Art Smith, 1929 – 2010

Notes on Arthur Clarke Smith from the Oct. 29, 2010 gathering

Arthur C. Smith, former professor of electrical engineering and dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, made significant and meaningful contributions to student life and learning during the near half-century he dedicated in service to MIT.

After receiving a BS in physics from the University of Kansas in 1951, Professor Smith earned two degrees at Harvard University: an MA in physics in 1954 and a PhD in applied physics in 1958. He came to MIT as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 1959, became associate professor in 1963, and was promoted to professor in 1968. His work included studies in thermoelectric energy conversion and semiconductor research, and he coauthored two textbooks on electronic conduction in solids.

Professor Smith’s colleagues recall him as a fierce protector of students, a role he honed as chair of several committees dealing with student affairs and academic policy: the Committee on Academic Performance (1972–74), the Committee on Privacy (1975–77), the Committee on Student Affairs (1979–81), and the Committee on Educational Policy (1983–85). He was also a member of the Minority Student Issues group. Professor Smith served as acting dean for student affairs in July 1990 and was appointed in the following year to a two-year term as dean for student affairs. A subsequent administrative reorganization added undergraduate education responsibilities to his position.

Even before becoming acting dean, Professor Smith had involved himself purposefully in student matters. On making this appointment, then-Provost John M. Deutch referred to Professor Smith’s “deep understanding of the institution and of the concerns of the students, developed over more than 30 years as a teacher, faculty leader, advisor, and father of two graduates.” Amy Smith ’84, SM ’95, ENG ’95, a MacArthur fellow who created and teaches MIT’s influential D-Lab class, agreed with her father’s philosophy on an educator’s relationship with and expectations of students. “The trust that Dad had in students is something that I see in my work, in that MIT trusts that students can do good things before they graduate,” Amy said. “That’s one of the things that he really personified.”

Professor Smith leaves his wife, Wilma Ronco, daughters Abby SM ’84, Amy, and Tracy, stepsons Will and Dan Ronco, and many colleagues and friends at MIT and in Lexington, Massachusetts, where the family made their home. He was deeply engaged with his community in Lexington, attending years of town meetings and serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals. He was known as a stalwart member of the trumpet section of the Lexington band, where for some time Amy had joined him as a saxophone player. Professor Smith previously served as the band’s president and was still its librarian at the time of his death.

At Lexington’s Follen Church, Professor Smith was an active member who had a key role in the Christmas tree sales, supported the youth group, cooked soup and baked bread, and served in the church government. Baked goods played a prominent part in yet another of Smith’s roles: sports dad. As an undergraduate, Amy played on the MIT volleyball team and her father would attend all her games, dragging along the man with whom he had shared an office when he first arrived at MIT: President Paul Gray. “There were hardly any fans there at all,” Amy says. “It was Dad, Paul Gray, Constantine [Simonides, former MIT vice president and secretary of the Corporation], and maybe two other roommates, or something.” Professor Smith got in the habit of bringing chocolate-chip cookies and granola to the games. If one of Amy’s teammates complained that there weren’t enough cookies to go around, she would get her own personal batch of cookies the next week. “By the end, my father would come with two shopping bags full of Zip-locked bags of cookies specifically labeled for different people on the team,” Amy says.

President Emeritus Gray recalls that Professor Smith was a formidable opponent on the squash court. “Art and I took squash lessons together at MIT in 1961, and we played squash together for the next 49 years,”
he says. “Each of our matches was tough, and the day’s winner was always difficult to predict in advance.”

Professor Smith was chair of the Faculty from 1983 to 1985 and received the Gordon Y Billard Award for distinguished service to the Institute in 1987. In 1996, on Professor Smith’s stepping down as dean, then-President Charles Vest spoke of his perceptiveness, wisdom, and innovative thinking about handling of student issues. MIT honored him at that time with the creation of the Arthur C. Smith Award, which recognizes a member of the community “for meaningful contributions and devotion to undergraduate
student life at MIT.”

In May of 2010, Professor Smith’s family continued his tradition of participating in Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger by walking in his name, and they have established the Arthur C. Smith Memorial Fund at MIT, to which memorial gifts may be made. Checks to MIT can be mailed to the MIT Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive Cambridge, MA 02139-4307. Questions about memorial gifts to MIT, which may also be made online, may be directed to Bonny Kellermann ’72 (bonnyk@mit.edu; 617-253-9722).

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One Response to “Celebrating the Life of Art Smith, 1929 – 2010”

  1. Larry Stabile says:

    I knew Professor Smith as an undergraduate student, in 6.08 (Stat Mech and Thermo). I had heard that the course was difficult from fellow students, so I was a bit anxious before it started. Largely due to Art Smith, it was one of the best courses I took at the Institute. His lucid style, well-planned lectures, and thorough recitation classes made the subject matter very clear and interesting. To this day the concepts are still interesting and illuminating, though that class was many, many years ago. He is certainly one professor I will not forget, and in retrospect I would have been better off had I taken even more of his courses.

    Larry Stabile, EE ’74

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