Students, colleagues remember former educator

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 25, 2011

Many who knew Bev Smith agreed on one thing this week: the former LBWCC English instructor loved to teach, and his students knew it.

“Students who took his courses could rightly say that they had been to school,” current LBWCC English instructor Steve Hubbard said. “For example, if they passed Mr. Smith’s English Comp I, they had had enough practice to be able to write serviceable thesis statements and to develop them with believable reasons and examples; and if they had lacked editing and proofreading skills, they now had a much better handle on them.”

Smith came to Andalusia to teach at LBW in 1972. At the time, he expected to be here for one year; instead, he retired in 2001 with 29 years of service.

In 1979, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with Leber’s disease and lost most of his vision.

“Even after Bev lost much of his eyesight some 30 years ago and had to rely on assistants to read papers to him and to mark them for him, most of his students still learned to write college-level essays,” Hubbard said. “Each week, he scheduled office time for those not happy with their writing or with their grades, and they would come by and read to him from the papers in question. Bev did some of his best teaching in these informal, one-to-one sessions. As a result, in the context of their own writing, most struggling writers would begin to grasp sentence construction, word choice, grammar, and punctuation; the more advanced writers would learn style.”

Renee LeMaire was both Smith’s student, and one of the assistants on whom he relied. As a work-study student, it was her job to read papers to him. She said he had assistants read every word, every punctuation mark, every capitalization to him as part of the grading process.

“It was amazing,” she said.

“After he lost his vision, he would lecture just like always,” she said. “He used no notes; he needed nothing. I would be spellbound.”

Hubbard said one of the secrets to Smith’s success as a teacher was that he “wore his learning lightly.”

“Instead of fearing him, students trusted him as a tour guide who, if they did as he instructed, would lead them successfully through a demanding course,” Hubbard said. “Taking great pleasure in words well chosen and well arranged, he sometimes recited in his resonant baritone pertinent lines from poems, stories, and plays. Through his rendering of Chaucer’s bawdiest of Canterbury Tales, “The Miller’s Tale,” and through their ensuring tears of laughter, many students suddenly realized that they just might enjoy Mr. Smith’s literature class.”

He said they also learned about the potential of storytelling.

“When Bev lectured on a classic Faulkner story such as ‘A Rose for Emily’ or ‘Barn Burning,’ many saw that the materials for great story-telling are to be found in their own region of the country as well as elsewhere.”

Another former colleague, Curtis Thomasson, said Smith was among the most popular instructors who ever taught at LBW.

“Students were just in awe,” he said. “He spoke the English language so beautifully.”

And he also encouraged countless students who had not yet found their voices.

“He touched the lives of a lot of people with his encouragement,” LeMaire said. “He made a difference in my life for sure. He believed in me and encouraged me to further my educational pursuits. When you lack self confidence and someone tells you, ‘You can do it, you can do it,’ it makes a world of difference.”

Scott Richburg also was an assistant in Smith’s classroom, in 1988.

“What an amazing experience to read his students’ papers to him as he listened, corrected the papers in his head, and told me what to mark,” Richburg said. “His limited eyesight precluded him from doing his own grading and from relying on notes for his lectures. He did not need notes, so vast was his knowledge of English literature.

“During years of undergraduate and graduate studies, I had only two lecturers I ever studied under who could sustain my full attention for the full hour; Mr. Smith was one,” Richburg said. “Throughout my own teaching career, I have relied on the knowledge he gave me and the example he set. He was the master.

Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart also is a former student.

“I think the thing, looking back, that you appreciate was that he had a special ability to project his passion for literature, and students got caught up in it, too,” he said. “He was a special educator.”

Former LBWCC president Seth Hammett said, “Teaching English at the community college level was his life.  He loved it and he lived to teach.  His students enjoyed the fact that he challenged them.  He was a remarkable man.”

Smith donated his body to the medical school at Ole Miss. His sons plan a memorial service in Andalusia at a later date, as was his request.