Remember David Smiley!
by James Lutzweiler
Places, not people, dominate some of the national imperatives we learn from childhood in America. We "Remember the Alamo!" We "Remember the Maine!" We "Remember Pearl Harbor!" And we "Remember 9/11!" -- all of which remembrances become battle cries and eventuate in death for innocents as well as the guilty. Perhaps it is time we identified some American people to remember in order to explore whether joyous life instead of carnage might ensue from such mnemonic mandates. I would like to nominate my late native-Mississippian friend, David Smiley, as a candidate for such an honor.
There are many reasons why Smiley comes to mind, not the least of which is a quote he once shared with me about his native state. Said he, "Mississippi always places either first or last in every survey of the 50 states. It just depends on how the question is asked." To illustrate his point he referred to a recent survey that had cited Mississippi as being first in the number of syphilis cases reported. He had proudly volunteered the statistic and then commented quite unflappably, "Mississippi also placed last in a recent survey about math, and I seriously doubt that the numbers were that high." He projected that same spirit of optimism on the remaining forty-nine states that were not fortunate enough to claim his roots and now, sadly, his bones.
It only occurs to me now that I first met Smiley through an exchange of letters about states and their various rankings. I lived in Minnesota at the time, and he lived in North Carolina, where he had spent almost a half-century as a professor of American history at Wake Forest University. The immediate occasion of my writing him was a boastful claim I had read, made by a North Carolina State University professor, Richard Walser. Walser was the author of a clever little book of poetry, to wit, Nematodes [i.e., worms] in My Garden of Verse, in which he claimed that North Carolinians made the best poets. Until I moved here myself, I took understandable umbrage with that assessment and decided to do something about it.
Nevertheless, I received one reply to the challenge. Yes, it was from David Smiley. Smiley had only recently retired from WFU, and the then chairman of Wake Forest’s history department knew exactly to whom to forward such a crank letter. I received a delightful reply from the man I now remember herein.
Smiley took the occasion to humor me, lamenting that it was too bad I felt that way but that was just the way things were. I had no idea who he was at the time, nor did he know me from Adam’s ox goad. That all changed a year or so later when I moved to Tar Heeliana in 1992.
Not knowing many people here in the old North State, I called Smiley on the phone and arranged to meet him for lunch at the K&W Cafeteria in Winston-Salem. Thus began a tradition that lasted almost a decade and forms the basis of my own feeble attempt here to resurrect him again in this life almost before his corpse has turned cold.
In short, I became a beneficiary of WFU’s mandatory retirement policy. Smiley, whose Baptist blarney was ironically impeccable, was born in 1921 on St. Patrick’s Day. He had come to Wake Forest in 1950 with a PhD fresh from the historical hands of William Hesseltine, the University of Wisconsin’s scholarly equivalent of Vince Lombardi. Hesseltine’s better known students are Stephen Ambrose, often seen on Good Morning America, and America’s Abraham Lincoln laureate, Richard Current. Smiley retired in 1991, just in time to tutor me privately and passionately for the next decade. He loved teaching and needed an audience more than a bum needs a bath or Bill Clinton a new skirt. I sort of became his audience. He was better than a Broadway play and far less expensive.
The arrangement came about in this way. After meeting Smiley for the first time, I was charmed with him and all of his stories, some of which will follow shortly. But I wanted more of the man than one lunch could afford. I had offered to buy that first lunch, a rare plunge into philanthropy for me, and the practice began to grow on me like kudzu. After I bought the next dozen dinners, however, he became noticeably uncomfortable that I was always the one buying. I decided then that I had to confess my sin. And I did.
Said I, "Dr. Smiley, look here, I take you out to lunch once or twice a month and it costs me less than ten dollars a pop. You, on the other hand, regale just me alone with stories and lectures for two hours, while WFU students are paying $600 per tuition-hour to sit in a class where the teacher-student ratio is twenty, thirty or even two hundred to one. The fact of life is that I am cheating you. Would you be willing to allow me to continue to cheat you in this way and bless me beyond that which I can afford?" Had Jesus been born twenty centuries later, our Scriptures might contain sagas about Smiley as well as the Samaritan. His friendship bound up and healed some fresh wounds.
I can’t recall the first stories with which he began to regale me, but in retrospect some of them had to be about his beloved teacher, William Hesseltine. No Demon Deacon fan, no Tar Heel fan, no Wolfpack fan, no Panther fan ever spoke more enthusiastically about an athlete than Smiley spoke about Hesseltine. Hesseltine had been dead for almost 30 years, but Smiley spoke of him with a sort of reverence and exuberance that made me look over my shoulder to see if he might be eavesdropping, perhaps perched on some invisible pallid bust of Pallas.
Smiley then confessed one of his own sins. He said he had stolen liberally from Hesseltine’s lectures, a confession that died the lingering death of a thousand qualifications because of his constant invocation of the "Old Man’s" name as the source for everything he ever said that was good. He further qualified his confession by noting that "When you steal from one teacher, that is plagiarism. When you steal from many, that is scholarship." I rather suspect that Hesseltine might even have stolen a bit from his student Smiley.
That the two of them, Hesseltine and Smiley, had co-authored a book on Southern history seemed to be an everlasting source of joy and inspiration to Smiley. He told me how he, Smiley, always had difficulty writing and how Hesseltine had made it a point to take him under his wing and co-author a textbook with him to further his career. My own copy of that Southern classic, autographed by Smiley in a hand that makes Hieroglyphics seem speed-readable, sits five feet from my left shoulder, as I type.
If something specific about Southern history was not written in this book, I could always pose a question directly to the author. I had many such questions and began to save them for our next meetings. One of them concerned a pet theory I have concerning the role of the first transcontinental railroad in the coming of the Civil War. In short, I argue that the fight between Jeff Davis and Abe Lincoln (that later spread to their respective admirers) as to where the first footprint of that railroad would go had more to do with the coming of the war when it did and where it did than did slavery --a view that is no doubt even more correct today than it was when I first posted it.
One day I sought Smiley’s view on this question. Not surprisingly he began to quote "Mr. Hesseltine" (his customary but not exclusive designation for the "Old Man"), who had once said rather Solomonically, "For Yankees the fear of New Orleans was the beginning of wisdom. The New England Puritans were certain that the gold of California and the wealth of the Orient were destined to flow from west to east no further south than Iowa, especially not into the coffers of those godless, New Orleans plantation owners whose coffee-colored children --and not so colored from drinking the brew-- gaily played under the summer sun, while their masters desecrated the Sabbath by drinking mint juleps on their expansive porches" --or words pretty close to that effect. I took that as outright endorsement of my view and have contended for the same over coffee ever since.
While we laughed heartily at such great quotes, it was not uncommon for Smiley to tear up a bit over the lunch table, when speaking of his hero Hesseltine. Surely one of the first stories he told me about Hesseltine was about the Wisconsonite weeping as he lectured to his students about the battle of Cold Harbor. Hesseltine, a Virginian and therefore an ostensible Confederate sympathizer, would choke up as he told Smiley’s seminar class the story of how General Grant’s soldiers would pin their names on the back of their shirts before that battle, knowing in advance that they would not be coming back alive for someone to identify them.
It was because of this story that I knew Smiley, a Southern history specialist, was more universally American in his outlook than his specialty would suggest. He had once passed along to me a quip by Lewis Grizzard, the late columnist and hilarious laureate of things Southern for the Atlanta Constitution. Smiley said that Grizzard’s own personal favorite reading material was the obituary section of The New York Times -- and not just because those obituaries were so well-crafted. The Georgia rebel just enjoyed knowing that a lot of Yankees were still dying. It was the sort of comic relief that Smiley needed to hold back more tears for the real Yankees from Cold Harbor over whom Hesseltine had taught him to mourn even 130 years after their passing.
Smiley stayed in close touch with Hesseltine long after graduation. He told me of once attending the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association with him. He said Hesseltine took a seat right in the middle of the crowded auditorium when he, Smiley, was to read a paper. Halfway through the paper, Hesseltine got up and walked out on his student, thereby demonstrating his displeasure over some construction Smiley had put upon things. The slight did not hurt him in the least, since he knew the high standards to which Hesseltine held his students.
Those high standards were brought further into focus for me in a conversation I once held with Stephen Ambrose who made millions off the writing skills Hesseltine imparted to him. I had gone to hear Ambrose lecture on his best seller, Undaunted Courage, to Kentucky’s prestigious Filson Club in Louisville. The book had just come out. Ambrose said he had expected it to sell about 40,000 copies. By then it had already sold 800,000 copies, a number that greatly surprised him, and it was still climbing. He said, "I write good books, and I expect good reviews, but this was beyond anything I had thought." No lack of confidence here.
After his remarks, Ambrose received in a long line listeners who wanted to visit with him personally. He gave each of them 5-10 seconds. When it was my turn, I extended my hand, flashed him a Davy Crockett smile, and promptly uttered what proved to be a miniature magical mantra, to wit, "Tell me a story about Hesseltine." Instantly he reciprocated Crockett’s curve and without missing a beat obliged me with a reply for the next five minutes. The story he told was about his first writing exercise for Hesseltine.
His story went this way: "After I turned in my first paper to him, I went home thinking to myself that the Old Man was spending the evening calling editors around the country to place that paper in one of their scholarly journals. The next day when I went to class, he began to review each student’s paper. I was quite anxious to hear what he had to say about mine. He went on and on about others, never mentioning mine. After a while I could contain my curiosity no longer and interrupted his remarks to ask what he thought about my paper." Ambrose then proceeded to relate the Old Man’s reply.
Said Hesseltine, "Mr. Ambrose, when I was a boy, I lived in Virginia. We lived on a farm and we had a chicken coop. It was not uncommon in those days for a rattlesnake to attack our chickens, randomly eating them or their eggs. On occasion we would find and kill the rattlesnake, and then hang his carcass on the door as a warning to other rattlesnakes." Here, Ambrose seeing no connection with this monologue, inquired, "So what does that have to do with my paper?" Hesseltine pointed to another door in the classroom, and there hanging on it, a la Luther’s theses, was his paper. And here, in his telling me the story, the wealthy writer laughed with great satisfaction.
I owe the joy of that occasion to Smiley, who not only lectured me on Hesseltine but upon any number of Hesseltine’s thirty-or-so PhDs that he had cranked out over his career. Richard Current was another, a prolific writer of whom Hesseltine was perhaps the most proud. When I called Current, now 92 and living in a Massachusetts nursing home, to let him know that the 83 year old Smiley had moved on ahead of us, Current replied, "It’s just a shame how he died so young." I began to pump Current for a Hesseltine vignette, but I had worn him out too soon.
Here, however, the ghost of Smiley perched upon my shoulder and whispered another story or two about his hero in my ear. Smiley told me that Hesseltine, a one-time candidate for the vice-presidency on the Socialist Party ticket, was an Episcopalian. He said, "We Episcopalians have come about to a workable accommodation with God. We stay out of his business and he stays out of ours."
Episcopalian though he was, Hesseltine preached to Smiley that he should make it a point to attend and join the Baptist church in Madison where a peace-loving fellow named Charlie Bell held forth. Charlie had recently arrived in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Madison from a Southern Baptist church in Anniston, Alabama, where he had made the mistake of praying for the German soldiers in WWII. Bell was forcibly retired for uttering such irritating invocations.
Other recollections of the Normandy invasion were etched indelibly on his mind. He told me of an American parachutist whose chute became impaled upon a church steeple, leaving the unfortunate fellow to dangle there on the church roof before German guns like a sitting duck. The fellow feigned death and just hung there limply until the fighting was over, after which he was rescued. And he also saw humor in the midst of all the horror. He found himself laughing heartily as he observed a Frenchman tipping his hat to a lady passerby, while relieving himself in an openly public privy. His repertoire of images and free associations was colorful and kaleidoscopic.
After the war, Smiley returned to America and enrolled at Baylor University. He had already attended Mississippi College before the war, and moved on to Baylor for reasons I have now forgotten. While there he earned his BA and MA, and even taught economics for a brief period. From Waco he went to Wisconsin and then on the Wake Forest, long before W’s were so popular in public discourse. Many of the North Carolina Baptists who scooped him up for Wake Forest never knew how prescient they were, even though Smiley would claim that he never worked for the school a day in his life. He said teaching was so much fun for him that he would have done it for nothing, if he could have. Indeed he was the consummate professor, a scholarly showman whose pedagogical devices ought to be paradigmatic for every professor who aspires to inspire students.
His students loved him, as I came to learn by occasionally having lunch with them also when they came to visit him. At least once, if not more than that, they gave him a standing ovation after a lecture. While Ambrose and Current made money from their books, Smiley made whatever he made from his talks.
So popular was he among the students that when one young fellow decided to run for student council president, he conned Jane Mansfield into attending Smiley’s class, when the buxom blonde was in the Triad on other business. After the class Mansfield, taller than the stubby Smiley, necessarily cradled his cranium betwixt her own version of the Grand Tetons and bussed his bald head before the spellbound students. Smiley left the lipstick in place and went off to lecture at a Baptist College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, where he declared that his history class in Winston-Salem that day had been a bust. Here he proceeded to wipe off the lipstick with a Kleenex; and, like any other self-respecting economist, he promptly sold the tissue to a student for 50 cents. I offered him $5.00 for it, but I was twenty years too late.
In spite of his rather asexual appearance, Smiley understood that sex was a part of American history -- as well as every other nation’s history, of course. And he did not shy away from the topic in the classroom or at the dinner table. He had a habit of spontaneously launching into the etymology and orthography of words at the drop of anything capable of being dropped. One day for reasons I cannot now recall he chose a synonym for female genitalia as the word he wished to dissect. Said he, "It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘sheath,’ as in the scabbard into which a sword is placed." Whoever wrote The Vagina Monologues never came close to Smiley’s monologues. One day while in Chicago’s Newberry Library after being gone from home for a week, I felt a sudden impulse to check up on him. I pulled the OED off the shelf, and sure enough, it meant "sheath." Time fails me to share fully the story of a Wake Forest landlady who allegedly became pregnant after re-using the bathwater of a Baptist bachelor Latin teacher there.
Not all of our sexual exchanges were oral. In between lunches together we began exchanging letters. A letter arrived one day containing a clipping from The New York Times. The clipping contained a story about some new translations from the Song of Solomon, one of which featured a rather remarkable translation of a passage in chapter 7 (it can be found in The Anchor Bible and the reader will find the verse I have in mind to be self-authenticating). A few years later I had the pleasure of reciting these harmless but explosive words from God to an elite gathering of historians at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I had the pleasure of watching three ladies stand up and stomp out. I owe that wonderful recollection to David Smiley -- and now also to Danny Akin, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who has included a very similar translation in his commentary entitled God and Sex.
He shared some of these notes with me from time to time. I recall well a poem he once recited to his class. Smiley had been instrumental in integrating Wake Forest University. No doubt the lines he quoted had helped to shape his mind toward this end. The lines were imputed by some now forgotten poet to the black man who carried Christ’s cross on his behalf. Rhymed he:
Look not on me with such disdain because my skin is of a darker hue.
I should have expected to hear such fine lines from a man whom I had met on the battlefield of contested poetry.
Naturally because of my background in theology and history, we would often talk about religious history. I asked him one day about the revivalists who burned their way through Dixie when he was a boy. He began to spin me a tale about one such fellow by the name of "Cowboy Crimm." Cowboy wore a ten-gallon hat and preached on hell like he was born and raised there. In the revival that Smiley remembered, Crimm first hung six hankies on a clothesline in front of the pulpit. He then launched into his fulminations in a hot, humid tent. When sufficiently lathered up, Cowboy would remove one hankie, wipe his forehead, and hang it back up to dry. He knew he was through preaching when he ran out of dry hankies.
This was no empty tale. Though a church historian of sorts, I had never before heard of the Texan Crimm. Several years later, when exploring employment as the archivist for Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, the fact that I knew of Crimm so impressed my prospective employer that I was offered the job on the spot. Cowboy Crimm has been one of my own heroes ever since that memorable day.
Theologically Smiley was a bit more liberal than I and we found ourselves on opposite ends of the conservative/ moderate/ liberal controversy going on in the Southern Baptist Convention. But that struggle never came between us as friends. I always assumed that it was just his kind giving of a benefit of the doubt, not his otherwise penchant for precise grammar, that made him believe that folks like Barth, Bruner and Bultmann used words in the same sense that everyone else did.
Not only did I like to hear Smiley talk about history, his hero Hesseltine and the Holy Scriptures but about his childhood. He was old enough that he had personally known folks who had either fought in the Civil War or had been in it as victims. He used to tell me of an old black lady who had been in the Battle of Atlanta and how she would take his small hand in hers, put three kernels of corn in it, and say to him, "This is all we had to eat for a while until we recovered from Sherman’s march." And he would sometimes break into tears, as he told me more than once of coming home from school to warm, apple pastries made for him by his loving mother, the daughter of a Civil War soldier.
The Civil War was not the only topic in Clarksdale in those days. Football was in the air. One day I received in the mail another clipping from Smiley, this one being the obituary of New York Giants Hall of Famer, Charlie Connerly. I began to wonder if Smiley was leaning toward Grizzard’s view of Yankees and asked him what the meaning of it was. He informed me that as a boy he had played sandlot football with Connerly, and how Connerly "used to fume at me for missing my blocks." The imagery of the Hall of Famer fuming at the professorial Smiley is surely one of the funniest images in American history for those who can visualize that replay.
From his childhood to the end of his life, Smiley found humor in history everywhere. As an adult he once entered his home-grown turnips in a contest at the North Carolina State Fair. They placed second. Unfortunately, there was no first place winner. Fortunately for Smiley he fared better after Paul Harvey got hold of this fact and broadcast to America quite accurately that "Smiley’s turnips were second to none." A recent eulogist at Smiley’s memorial service recalled that the entry was for beets, not turnips, and that the contest was the Forsyth County Fair, not the State Fair. But as the Italians say, "Even if neither is true, it is very well spoken."
In verbally bidding this old friend goodbye, I am not so naïve as to believe that it is not an overstatement and a bit Quixotic to suggest that all Americans should go around saying, "Remember David Smiley!" instead of "Remember the Alamo!" etc. But to do so would make exponentially more sense than all of the Vietnam War, the current Iraqi War, what some have called "The Irrepressible Conflict" and a few others I do not have the time to spell out in detail in his and Hesseltine’s memory. While this mini-memoir will just be buried away in a vertical file at WFU and perhaps at Baylor, Smiley will live on in this life at least every time I recite a little poem I wish I had written and to which Smiley could raise nothing but praise, if I had, to wit,
Isn’t it strange that paupers and kings
The little Mississippian has left stepping stones all over the place; and as a teacher of history at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, North Carolina, I already find myself shamelessly stealing Smiley’s scholarly stuff.
James Lutzweiler serves as the archivist for Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and also teaches American history at Guilford Technical Community College. He owns a microfilming business in which he preserves old periodicals and manuscript collections.
Jim's research into 'the Yellow Rose of Texas' was recently celebrated in James E. Crisp's book, SLEUTHING THE ALAMO (Oxford University Press, 2004). He has written several monographs including REVIVALISTIC RECIDIVISM: THE 'CHRONIC NEGRO MOURNER' AND THE CONVERSION OF BILLY GRAHAM.
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