When Howard W. Smith Jr. first began teaching grades 1-8 at a one-room country school in Newton County, Mo., he was only 19.
Recalling that first experience, he says, “At the time, I thought I managed pretty well.” Then he adds with an easy laugh, “I realize now I could have done a whole lot better.”
And he would know. From those humble beginnings, he would go on to earn a doctorate in elementary education from the University of Missouri and become a highly regarded university professor and a prolific researcher. He is nationally recognized for his work in the improvement of teacher education and higher education.
Now 77 and enjoying an active retirement, this UNT emeritus dean and professor devoted his career to education, a career that spanned 36 years at UNT, where he served as a popular major professor in the College of Education and an administrator for both the college and the university.
The lives Smith has touched are innumerable. They include, significantly, more than 100 doctoral students — 110 by his count — whom he mentored, advised and hooded during his career, a record for the UNT College of Education as well as the university.
He began his career at North Texas in 1961, before the College of Education had established the specialized academic departments it has today, and started advising doctoral students within his first few years as a professor.
“I was able to use the research interests of the students rather than my own,” he says. That made possible “a tremendously wide variety of dissertation topics and an interesting variety of students.”
His popularity among doctoral students in education is legendary. In part, it was his wise guidance and conscientious attention to keeping the dissertation process on track that made him stand out, according to one of his advisees, Irv Freeman (’88 Ph.D.), who is now executive director for academic affairs at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.
Upon Smith’s retirement, Freeman sent a letter to all of Smith’s doctoral students, initiating an endowed College of Education scholarship in Smith’s name.
“I consider that to be one of the greatest honors I’ve received out of the whole doctoral effort,” Smith says.
Smith’s winsome sense of humor, easy collegial manner and positive attitude served him well with his students as well as his university colleagues.
He was the College of Education’s first associate dean (1969 to 1976), and he led the college twice: as its acting dean (1972-73) and later as interim dean (1995 to 1997).
From 1976 to 1980, he also served as associate vice president for academic affairs for the entire university. He was promoted to vice president for academic affairs in 1980.
“I was in a position for many years to have influence in helping to push us toward becoming a graduate-level institution,” he says.
In dealing with promotion and tenure issues, merit pay, expectations for research and publishing, and the like, he had to make decisions that were not always easy.
“But one thing that made that really easy is that I always liked all the people at North Texas,” Smith says. “I just generally liked everyone, and that continued on through the years. It wasn’t conscious on my part but just the way I felt.”
President and chancellor, ad interim
In 1980, Frank Vandiver was named the university’s new president. But after only about a year, Vandiver resigned the North Texas presidency and chancellorship to accept the presidency of Texas A&M University.
By the fall of 1981, Smith found himself in the role of ad interim president and chancellor of the university until a new president could be named.
“We were in a state of turmoil at that time,” he admits.
Nevertheless, he says, “that was one of the most enjoyable, rewarding aspects of my entire career, that brief period.
“I think I did a pretty good job of providing at least temporary stability. A lot of people knew me, and they knew if they had a problem they could talk to me.”
President and Chancellor Emeritus Alfred F. Hurley agrees: “Howard provided a steady hand and worked well with all of us. He also knew a great deal about the institution and was very valuable because of his background.”
One of Smith’s fondest memories from that time was hosting, with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), a visit to UNT by educational leaders from China — one of the first visits of its kind in the country.
A world of interests
Throughout his career, Smith pursued a wide range of interests and professional activities. One notable early innovation was his micro-teaching laboratory, a specially equipped, controlled environment for observing prospective teachers with students. He and faculty colleague Louise Allen collaborated on the project in the late 1960s.
“I got the idea from my brother at McDonald Douglas, who had worked on the Gemini project,” remembers Smith. “I thought, why couldn’t we just build a space capsule of our own?”
The lab earned Smith, Allen and UNT considerable recognition, including a cover story in the Dallas Times Herald’s Sunday supplement.
In 1982, Smith accepted an invitation to serve for a semester as a senior consultant to the AASCU Resource Center for Planned Change in Washington, D.C. He returned to the College of Education the following year and continued to expand his work at the national and international levels.
He says his contact with international students as a professor was a catalyst for his involvement with educational consulting in several countries around the world, including China, the former Soviet Union and Thailand. UNT cited him for distinguished service to international education in 1994, one of his many awards and honors.
Abroad and at home
Since retiring, Smith has continued to travel for pleasure. Recent trips have taken him to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa and the headwaters of the Amazon River in South America. He plans a trip to Belize soon.
He continues to make his home in Denton, where he lends his leadership to the community and North Texas region. He served as chair of the Denton County Historical Commission from 1998 to 2004 and was founding president of the board of the Texas Lakes Trail Region Inc. from 2002 to 2004. He remains active in both organizations and also continues to serve on the UNT College of Education Development Board.
Georgia Kemp Caraway (’95 Ph.D.), executive director of the Denton County Museums and one of Smith’s former doctoral students, has since worked closely with him and the historical commission on a project to expand the county’s museums.
“He’s an amazing consensus builder,” Caraway says. “I saw him work with people from the state, the county commissioners’ court, local government and city council.”
His work to bring groups with differing opinions to agreement on community matters has been inspiring and invaluable, she says.
The great citizen
At Smith’s UNT retirement reception in 1997, the College of Education presented him with a specially carved piece of crystal titled “Echoes in Crystal.”
On that occasion, Jean Keller, the college’s dean, shared the crowd’s heartfelt thanks and admiration:
“Howard, your career with the College of Education is like this crystal. It catches the light and reflects it to many places. Your kindness, good works, humor and friendship will be echoed throughout our college forever.”
His influence on the university as a whole continues to resound as well.
“He has been totally devoted,” says Hurley, “I think that is universally felt, and the record shows it.
“He is one of the great citizens of the institution.”