Stan Smith, Professor of Biology at Bowling Green University, and my friend
I first met Stan when I arrived in Evanston, Illinois, to begin a belated post-doc in the spring of 1977. Stan was a graduate student in the lab I joined, and when another student got his Ph.D. and moved on, I moved into the desk space next to Stan’s. Stan was a typical mid-westerner, and if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn he was from Missouri, the Show-Me State. He was roughly cautious of me initially, sure that I would invade his contiguous space with my books and papers and generally bother him while he was working.
Apparently, he was rather surprised when I did neither and after a few months, we became fast friends. Stan had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, much of it directed at his sons Danny and Michael, and his down-to-earth, very thoughtful way of looking at life. He was a perfect match for his patient and always smiling wife, Beth. There are too many small things to recount about Stan, but we always laughed at his contribution to any potluck the lab: a bowl of Jello with a whole banana in the bottom.
Stan grew up on a farm, one of five boys, and graduated from Churubusco High School, Purdue University and later Northwestern University where he received his PhD. He worked at Bowling Green State University for 28 years as a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences teaching Anatomy and Physiology; he also served as Graduate Coordinator. Stan enjoyed listening to classical music, collecting insects, and collecting decks of railroadiana cards and calendars.
We talked by phone once or twice each of those 28 years, catching up with what we were doing in our academic positions, grousing about students, and laughing at life.
I was contacted by a friend of the family in late 2007 to tell me that Stan had stomach cancer. He was in hospice by the summer of 2008. I wanted to visit him and regret to this day that I didn’t. I wrote and called but that’s not the same. I didn’t visit because the trip to Ohio was a long and rather expensive one, and I knew I would be the representative of our former lab at his funeral. Why is it that funerals take on more importance than saying good-bye while the person is still living? I knew Beth and Danny and Michael would want me there, though, to talk about Stan to the people assembled to celebrate Stan’s life.
I still think of him from time to time. Stan died way too young and he still had a lot to contribute to the world. He was a wonderful and patient teacher at Bowling Green, beloved by his students. He was such character…I can still hear his voice clearly in my head.
Sometime after the funeral I received a bound booklet with a collection of his short poems. I hadn’t known he wrote poetry, but somehow it seemed right. Here are three, which give you a small sense of who Stan was.
I’m sorry, old friend, that it’s taken me this long to tell the world about you — and we miss you.
Old Floor Boards
there’s something comforting
about plank floors,
not the young new ones
virtuous and straight,
but the old ones bent
and warped from years of doors
being slammed and children
fighting on them and scuffing
them for nothing they’ve done;
these old boards will bend with any gait
and they’ll accommodate almost any weight
and never argue, complain or clack
although at night they’ll creak
to ease the pain in their backs.
Auburn Love (to his Mom)
The auburn beauty that held men’s still sight
By the star of days and stars of night
Is done. The bright eyes that caught time’s delight
And frame it into images of love
Are shut. The gentle hands that moved above
The ivoried keys in joyful chords of
Song, and Traced the small brows of sleeping sons
Are still. The heart, the minde both very strong
Fled her body’s failing instincts; have gone
To mystery where eternity runs.
Wholly, thoughts now linger in living place,
In the grateful minds of those who embrace
The remembered woman of quiet grace,
Whose auburn love still warms their inner space.
Dad gave away our outhouse
To a neighbor when I was six;
Dad gave away our outhouse
Before he had figured out how to fix
The large hole left in the ground.
So every rock, large or small, in our village,
Went with a plopping sound
To a very unsatisfactory grave
In that deep and fertile ground.