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ASU writer to retire after 25 years, leaves gifts of music, community behind

October 09, 2012

Farewell concert set for Oct. 24 in Organ Hall, reception to follow

ASU writer Judith Smith was the first person in her family to graduate from college. She enrolled at California State University, Fresno in the fall of 1959, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English four years later. She later went back to school to earn her master's in American literature from California State University, Long Beach.

Although an avid learner and talented musician, she says she never had a plan for what she wanted to do professionally.

“I had no real ambition to do anything,” says Smith, who recalls her first job out of school was for State Farm typing insurance policies. “I was a fast typist, but I wrecked so many policies that they transferred me to proofreading them.” It was the worst job she ever had – "too regimented," she says – and she quit after six months.

The writing bug hadn’t yet set in, and wouldn’t for a few more years, until she found herself newly married in Salem, Ore., working for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I was editor of the staff newspaper. That’s when it started. I realized I could go out and interview people, and learn.”

Smith’s passions for writing and learning are evident in the cornucopia of feature stories she will leave behind this month when she retires from Arizona State University, following a 25-year writing career that captured many of the university's significant stories, particularly in the humanities and liberal arts, with an enduring focus on the people and discoveries behind them.

During her time at ASU, Smith penned roughly 1,400 stories about some of the university’s countless writers, scholars, painters, poets, performers, counselors, teachers, curators and volunteers – and the importance of their work – and she says she has a few more stories up her sleeve before she really calls it quits.

Author Melissa Pritchard, a professor in the English Department, says Smith is more than a writer, but an ally to the university, championing the efforts of its faculty and staff.

When Pritchard's MFA creative writing students rehearsed and performed a staged reading of Afghan women's writing in 2011, Smith attended all the rehearsals and interviewed the students for a story she wrote promoting the event.

"Her articles were always marvelous but her warm, intelligent support of my dreams and ideals meant equally as much to me," says Pritchard. "She has been a real friend, and I wish her all happiness in her retirement. I will miss her deeply."

The 'write' time

In 1987 Smith came to ASU a seasoned writer, having earned her stripes as a reporter and features writer for several newspapers and magazines, even working as a “girl Friday” at an advertising agency. Her writing gigs, as numerous and diverse as the subjects she has written on, have always presented themselves at just the right time, she says.

Once, on her way to apply for a job at the public library in Anaheim, Smith knew there was a newspaper nearby and found a parking lot to pull into where she could page through a phone book at a phone booth. To her surprise, she was standing at the exact address the book gave for the The Anaheim Bulletin: 232 S. Lemon Street.

“I looked around and realized I was right there, so I walked in and got a job on the ‘Society’ page.”

As a reporter, Smith had the chance to interview a number of celebrities – including Eugene Ormandy, Edith Head, Nancy Reagan, Ray Bradbury and Diane von Furstenberg – but she found that her most satisfying work came when writing about ordinary people who she just happened upon, such as "the late-middle-aged woman who sold hot dogs by day and wrote poetry at night." The woman's story became the driver of a piece Smith wrote about day-jobbers moonlighting as poets. It was published in the paper, along with one of the poems the woman had written.

"It was none too soon for this woman who was passionate about words," Smith said. "She died less than a month after the story ran. Her family told me at her funeral that I had given her the best gift ever."

Her writerly instincts followed her to ASU and she, in turn, continued to follow them – in the process, unearthing some university delights, such as the facilities management choir that carols and spreads good cheer during the holidays when they're not too busy making repairs around the university, or the Edible Campus internship, which maintains and teaches students about the organic machine that is the ASU Tempe campus.

Smith wrote about the "Twilight" phenomenon back in 2007, before it became the Hollywood doozy it is today, when ASU's English Department partnered with local bookseller Changing Hands and local writer Stephenie Meyer, author of the "Twilight" series, to host a "vampire prom" at ASU for Meyer's devout readers. For the story, Smith interviewed a London teen who traveled more than 5,000 miles to attend the prom.

ASU English professor James Blasingame says Smith's nose for news is only exceeded by her smooth and elegant prose. "Judith writes an insightful, informative and interesting story that sheds a bright light on the event," he says.

The power of one

In 2002 Smith discovered that, like many college campuses across the United States, there was a carillon at ASU although its bells had not been heard – or seen – for more than three decades.

In a storage room, out of plain sight, where it had been placed during a renovation in the early 1970s, the ASU Carillon sat in disarray – that is, until Smith, a music lover, who had fond memories of bells ringing on her own college campus in Long Beach, launched a successful campaign to restore it.  

"I had no idea what to do, so i just started writing letters to businesses around ASU and contacting people in the Class of '66 who were in student government," says Smith, who has raised close to $40,000 over the last 10 years with partner Carl Cross, a catalogue librarian in ASU's Hayden Library, who was in student government when the carillon was originally purchased by the students in 1966.

"People in the Class of '66 were passionate about the carillon, and were angry that it had been set aside," says Smith. "It was during Vietnam and they had dedicated it to those who had lost their lives." Honoring veterans is still an important part of the carillon.

The silence was broken in 2005, and today the Tempe campus community can hear the sounds of the Symphonic Carillon, currently set at 258 bells, on the hour. "It's such a beautiful instrument. I just knew we couldn't let it sit there," she says.

John Jarvis, former ASU Insight editor (2004-2009), says Smith has the ability to showcase ASU in a way that no one else can.

"She connected the dots to solve the mystery of what had happened to the carillon, then dived into the long, arduous task of restoring it to its former glory," Jarvis says. "That might seem like a feel-good ASU feature story and nothing more. But it shows how one journalist's curiosity can lead to something wonderful."

Although Smith's restoration of the carillon was her most dramatic ASU endeavor to date, it is just one of several university community projects she has initiated while here. Others include the Devils' Workshop, an arts festival that takes place every December, allowing faculty and staff to display and sell their wares on Hayden Lawn, and what may be the only university Staff Artfest in the country, which takes place over several weeks during the summer and highlights the artistic abilities of ASU staff. The annual event was recognized last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Ever since I started working here, I would get to know people and realize there were a lot of talented staff," Smith says. "The emphasis seems to be on the faculty, of course, so I had this idea where the staff can shine. I asked Classified Staff Council and they liked the idea, but no one ever did it. So seven years ago, I said, 'Darn it, I want to do it.'" She found official sponsors for the festival – the Memorial Union and Staff Council – and it's been going ever since.

In addition to serving on the Campus Beautification committee – resulting in the Adopt-A-Mall program and bringing Smith and others together once a week to pick up litter (cigarette butts, mostly) – Smith also established a university book club, currently in its second year.

"I've been in book clubs for a long time, and it occurred to me that I have been so blessed to interview all these wonderful authors that we have – so, I thought, why can't we just do it here at the Piper Writers House at noon, so people could come."

Thanks to Smith, ASU is home to a book club where the actual author of the selected book, often a faculty member, is part of the conversation.

A swan song

When she leaves Oct. 16, there will be several vacancies needing to be filled, and Smith says she hopes someone will carry on these roles she has created. Sharon Keeler, director of communications in ASU's media relations office, says it will be impossible to replace her.

"We’ll find another staff member, for sure, but no one will ever match her talent, wit and unique sense of the world," Keeler says. "She is one of the kindest, most spirited people I have ever known, and I have learned so much from her. I will miss her everyday."

Colleague and media relations officer Julie Newberg calls Smith an unsung hero at ASU. "She is always there to brighten someone's day and make the university a better place. We'll miss her," she says.

Kristen LaRue, senior coordinator in the English Department, echoes the sentiment.

"Judith has been a tremendous help in publicizing our Department of English events and initiatives," LaRue says. "I’ve also appreciated her work in finding and restoring the ASU Carillon. I’m a member of the Society of Interested Persons, which she began. Each May the society performs a Memorial Day reading, outside the Memorial Union, of names of ASU military service people killed in action, followed by a carillon concert.

"All this is to say that Judith Smith is smart, generous and tireless, and has touched many lives in her work. I have known her to be always researching, sleuthing, writing, coordinating and providing genuine goodwill among faculty, staff and students at ASU. I will personally miss her very much."

Smith says her life has been a journey of unexpected turns, and so there is no way of knowing for certain what she'll be throwing her energy into next – although practicing the clarinet, taking day trips around Arizona with her friends and her husband, Grant, and thoroughly cleaning her house are listed among her plans.

"I have been very blessed to have worked at ASU for 25 years," she says. "Working at a university is like going to a banquet every day, except our nourishment is a smorgasbord of ideas, research, discovery, art, music and intellectual stimulation. I will miss meeting all the wonderful, smart people here at ASU."

Like most things she's taken on, Smith's retirement party will be an artistic university event, open to the public, that she has planned herself. It will be an all Bach recital, performed by Kimberly Marshall, Golden Professor of Organ in the School of Music. The recital is set to take place from noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Organ Hall, on the Tempe campus. A reception in the lobby will follow the performance.

Smith is quick to note: "The school will be accepting donations to the organ maintenance fund."