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Swoboda, Marian J.; Roberts, Audrey J. / They came to learn, they came to teach, they came to stay
(1980)

Corneli, Helen
Chapter 13: The incomparable Mary Elizabeth Smith,   pp. 77-80


Page 77


13. The Incomparable
Mary Elizabeth Smith
by Helen Corneli
Like so many university stalwarts of her generation, Mary Elizabeth Smith
had a rural background.' She was born in 1905, in Yankton, South Dakota,
of
a large farm family. She attended Yankton College and Normal School al-
ternately with teaching in country schools, and then embarked on a life of
teaching Latin and English, interspersed with graduate school at Minnesota
and Iowa. By 1950, when she received her Ph.D. from Iowa, she was con-
centrating on literature and poetry, always her great love. Her thesis, The
Function of Natural Phenomena in the Poetry of Robert Frost, continued to
be meaningful to her and others throughout her academic life.
She came to Stevens Point in 1950, but because of an enrollment drop,
was "farmed out," as she always put it, to the University of Wisconsin-Eau
Claire for a year. She returned as assistant director of the Primary Education
Division and soon became the associate director, remaining in that position
until 1962. She served as the first director of freshman English at UW-
Stevens Point from 1964 to 1967, relinquishing the position with no great
sorrow to return to full-time teaching until her retirement in 1974. She
lived
less than a year past her retirement. But the biographical facts say little
about
the essential quality of her life. Let those who knew her speak of that.
A skilled reporter observes her in her office, "outlasting students
who
come and go and the teachers who call up." She sees Smith's "benign"
agreement with student concerns, the tolerance that greets what may have
been trivial matters, the cordiality to colleagues, and the generous assumption
of the role of advisor to advisors in which she was often cast.
A former student-become-friend describes her classroom mien - "a
lightning succession of glances, registering here bemusement, there delight,
there mock amazement." He speaks of her method - "a ubiquitous
demand
for evidence" coupled with freedom for students to feel literature,
which
"conjured up feelings, sensations, and emotions." Most tellingly
he describes
her demonstration that "one condition of friendship is understanding,....
[which] comes from attending to the other [person]."
An employer speaks of the "deep respect she has for human personality"
as the "most significant trait in her character. . the thing which makes
her a
born teacher." And she was a born teacher. A former student, now teaching
humanities at a major Big Ten university, calls her the only successful in-
ductive teacher she has ever known. She reports being drained after the total
involvement of each modern poetry class. "I don't know how she did it.
It was
some sort of magic. She seemed to give off a sense that she knew a secret,
and we badly wanted to find it out." She also remembers going out to
Smith's
house on Saturday afternoons and reading Robert Frost aloud to her. "I
would read, and then we would talk. And I learned. As I look back it was
a
privilege afforded to very few students." But that privilege was extended,
in
some degree, to all those who cooperated in her classes. She got away from
the assignment, grade, carrot-stick approach. A student - or a friend-
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