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Epilogue | Dr. Elton E. Smith

Elton Smith started as a preacher, but endured as a professor

Dr. Elton E. Smith was the oldest of three children from a rocky marriage between two teenagers. His father had just arrived at Yale University when he fell for a red-haired Irish actress.

Dr. Smith inherited his mother's red hair and flair for drama. But his was a life of constancy. Smith, 92, who died Wednesday, taught at the University of South Florida for 47 years. He was the school's longest-serving professor.

Before he was a Tampa institution, he was a Baptist preacher. Dr. Smith met his future wife, Esther, at a seminary.

But Dr. Smith kept winding up at churches affiliated with colleges. He figured God was leading him down a slightly different path.

He earned a doctorate in Victorian literature at Syracuse University. He liked the morality of the age, the ornateness of the art and literature.

Prestigious universities — Duke, Emory and the University of Pennsylvania — offered jobs.

He ended up at an infant institution, a humble collection of buildings and a couple of thousand students. He likened the University of South Florida to a desert. "The wind was whipping the sand in our faces," he told a reporter. "I could grind my teeth and hear it crunch."

But USF offered him something the other schools couldn't — the freedom to teach whatever he liked. He started a course, "the Bible as literature." It was the perfect fusion of his life's loves.

When a USF publication asked about his proudest moment, he answered with a moment of great relief: "When I passed my 34th birthday by one day. My Daddy died when he was 34."

An anachronistic lecturer, he brought another era into class. He wore suits and shiny shoes, and joked that he had to balance out the dressed-down students.

When administrators asked if they could add students to his class, he didn't balk. Ever the minister, he welcomed a crowd.

Years ago, when Dr. Smith was in his 60s, he beat a cocky young tennis player, reminding him that 60 years of practice at anything makes you pretty good.

Last summer, he flew to Oxford, England to be a keynote speaker at a literature conference. He went alone at age 91.

The students kept him young.

"When the fall comes, Esther and I always love it so," Dr. Smith told a St. Petersburg Times reporter who profiled him at age 90. " 'Aaah,' we think, 'Students!'

"That way, you see, we don't have to be with old people."

In Dr. Smith's 92 years, he spent just two nights in the hospital, his family said.

His daughter said she knows why he stayed well.

"Daddy knew was the plan and purpose was of his life — to save souls and educate students," Esther Shaw said.

He was still teaching this spring when he collapsed at home. His kidneys were failing. Another professor had to finish out the course.

His son, Stephen, said his legacy could be found in Psalm 100, his favorite:

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.


Dr. Elton E. Smith

Born: Nov. 9, 1915.

Died: July 2, 2008.

Survivors: wife, Dr. Esther M.G. Smith; sons Elton G. Smith and Stephen L. Smith; daughter Esther R. Shaw; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Services: Memorial at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of Tampa, 302 W Kennedy Blvd.

Elton Smith started as a preacher, but endured as a professor 07/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:51pm]
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