The 650-seat Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College was almost full Thursday evening to honor Dr. Duane Smith, the always cheerful, easy-to-talk-to professor of Colorado history who began teaching at the college in 1964.
The event was for Smith to deliver his “last lecture” and to receive a standing ovation. Smith will likely never be challenged as the college’s best-known and most-popular professor.
He has been skilled at being a prodigious writer of history with the deep underlying research that is required and as someone, sometimes in costume, who could deliver easy-to-listen-to history in informal settings to the uninformed. In vest, top hat and boots, he played roles in many downtown Durango historical re-enactments. In the occasional early 20th-century baseball game, he looked good in that uniform, too.
Smith can teach both in the classroom and out, a rare gift.
He is from Illinois, and he and the always-losing Chicago Cubs baseball team are linked at the hip, perhaps because the ardent Democrat favors the underdog. The Cubs’ perennial losing standings have been handy, giving Smith an opportunity to apply an extra bit of good humor to his regular reflections on how long it has been since the Cubs won a championship and to his predictions that this could be the year.
He has had a knack for engaging students with his sometimes-unexpected content and a liberal dose of humor, but he could use both to deliver meaningful messages. He used a course in the history of baseball to teach the changing racial and cultural moods in this country in the first half of the 20th century.
Smith is a disciplined writer, as reflected by the number of books he has authored and edited. That his wife, Gay, usually his editor, is equally disciplined, has been an unbeatable combination. On Thursday evening, he told the crowd they have four books in various stages of completion.
What has that team, the two Smiths, produced? Many books about Colorado’s mining history, both hard-rock and coal, close-in and north along the Continental Divide, a history of Fort Lewis College and histories thick and thin of Durango. They co-authored, with former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, a history of the state’s most significant governors. Another book compared and contrasted Durango to the small town in Illinois where Duane Smith grew up.
The Smiths are not going anywhere; Durango is home. While Duane Smith will not be in the college classroom except for special occasions, we can expect he will still be very active in a public history role, enriching Durangoans’ familiarity with the past. Duane Smith has had – and still is having – an extraordinary career.