BA 1972, History
MA 1974, American Studies
PhD 1984, History, University of Washington
Distinguished Professor, Dept. of History, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX
When Sherry Smith attended Purdue, she thought she’d be a high school teacher. One simple question changed her direction, and now she’s a Distinguished Professor of History at Southern Methodist University and the Associate Director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU. Smith has written widely about Native American history and the American West, and remembers one moment in her career that confirmed her change of direction had definitely put her on the right path.
“I was reading through my e-mails one day,” she recalls, “and found a message from the Organization of American Historians, the premiere professional association for historians of the United States: I had won the Rawley Prize (best book on race relations) for my book, Reimagining Indians. I certainly never expected to win such recognition. Moreover, Native American history has never been considered part of the mainstream, so I was pleased not only for myself, but for my field. To make it even more special, I received the e-mail on my birthday. That kind of recognition convinced me I was doing what I was meant to do.”
Three Purdue Department of History professors, in particular, set the course for my successful professional life. I will never forget the moment Professor Blaine Brownell asked me as we were walking across the mall, “Have you ever considered getting a Ph.D. in history?” I had not! In fact, given the times (the early 1970s), as a woman, my sights were set on becoming a high school teacher. That Professor Brownell thought I was capable of earning a Ph.D. gave me the confidence to move beyond my initial goal of secondary teaching and reach for university teaching and research instead. As for my particular interests in U.S. West and Native American history, Professors Donald Parman and Donald Berthrong were the department experts in those fields. So, I took their courses and worked closely with them, particularly while earning an M.A. in American Studies at Purdue. They were excellent teachers and actively engaged in fascinating research....Parman on Navajos and Berthrong on the Cheyennes. To have two prominent Indian historians at Purdue, at the same time, was a real bonus for me. I remain in touch with Don Parman, a wonderful human being as well as a talented historian. Don Berthrong passed away, I believe about a year or two ago. Professor Brownell left Purdue in the mid-1970s, but in recent years we reconnected and I thanked him for his interest and support.
I attended Purdue as an undergraduate between 1968 and 1972. I believe those were the best four years of the 20th century to be a college student. Everything, it seemed, was changing. Everything was being challenged. The times were both exciting...and heart-wrenching...as the civil rights/black nationalist, anti–Vietnam War, Red Power, and women's movements were all underway and reverberating on campuses across the country and even in West Lafayette, Indiana. You could not avoid these pressing and powerful political and social issues. I remember one day, a student coming in a political science class and demanding to know why we were sitting there instead of protesting the Vietnam War out on the mall. You could not avoid making moral choices about critical affairs, even if you wanted to. Gender barriers were also beginning to shatter. My freshman year women students still had hours in the dorms...you had to be back in the dorm by a certain time every night. (I can't remember the exact time now.) By my sophomore year, those had fallen by the wayside. At the Green Guard picnic I attended at Slayter Center, on one of the first days I spent on campus as a freshman, the speaker at the event was the editor of The Exponent. He told us how to obtain birth control pills at the Student Health Center. As I recall, that speech was rather controversial. But, I must admit, I found it pretty exciting. It was about freedom, choice, responsibility, adulthood.
It was at Purdue that I discovered my life's vocation and learned the fundamental skills that have stood me well as a historian and writer, particularly regarding critical thinking. High school history, in my day, was essentially an extension of political socialization. We were not supposed to question textbook or teacher. I remember receiving a “D” on a high school assignment where I concluded dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was a mistake. My teacher, a World War II veteran, was unhappy with my conclusion; thus the low grade. (I had received A grades on all other assignments.) But at Purdue we were encouraged, even expected, to think for ourselves...to ground our arguments in evidence but also to challenge received wisdom. In my freshman U.S. history survey class I was exposed to primary documents that allowed me to see history not as a collection of facts, but as a demanding discipline that required interpretation. This was so much more exciting! I really got into it and remember that a teaching assistant wrote on one of my first exams, “You have renewed my faith in mankind” because I had apparently written an A exam. I have used that phrase myself as a professor...passing forward the encouragement to other potential historians in my classes. To open up the world of knowledge to reconsideration and reinterpretation is a very powerful thing. That is what my Purdue professors offered me and I have enjoyed doing the same for my students. So, my academic experience at Purdue was most meaningful to me. However, I also had a LOT of fun—at football games, at Harry's Chocolate Shop, and just hanging with friends. I also remember spending a lot of time at Von's bookstore when it first opened...in a house a few blocks off campus, thumbing through The Whole Earth Catalog, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and other counterculture and feminists works. Recently I drove through West Lafayette and discovered the store has grown considerably and is now located on State Street. It's great to see a local bookstore make good!
Although I have enjoyed teaching and working with graduate students, in particular, I think my greatest achievement is the collection of books I have published. It is very satisfying to know that long, long after I am dead and gone those books will remain as a lasting contribution to knowledge. Of course, maybe no one will read them...but it's comforting to know they will exist. Teaching seems comparatively ephemeral. Books are forever.
Person I Admire
Nelson Mandela. This is kind of a cliché answer, but I visited South Africa this summer and learned so much about apartheid, colonialism, and its lasting legacy. To see firsthand the difficult problems that remain there, and yet to also understand how much has changed and the role he played in that transition, is deeply impressive. He was hospitalized while I was there and everyone seemed to assume he would die. But as I write this, he is still alive! The man has incredible strength, incredible heart.
Idea of Perfect Happiness
Reading a book while seated on the bank of Jackson Hole's Snake River, with the Tetons in the distance, my husband fly-fishing, my English Setter resting at my feet, on a sunny day surrounded by golden aspen. (Something I did just last Friday...I am very lucky to have found heaven on earth!) Editor’s note: Smith’s photo is from her paradise—Bridger-Teton National Forest, in Jackson Hole.
What I’m Reading
For professional purposes (I’m writing a book review): Regionalists on the Left: Radical Voices from the American West, edited by Michael Steiner; for fun: Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver.
Profession I’d Like to Try
I would love to be a documentary filmmaker. I've served as a consulting scholar/talking head for several documentaries, but would love to create one of my own someday.