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University of Maine scholar David Smith dies at 80

Professor Emeritus David C. Smith, a University of Maine faculty member, died Nov. 7 at the age of 80.

Smith was born in Lewiston and served on the UMaine faculty for almost 25 years before retiring in 1994. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University. According to those who knew him, he was a remarkable scholar and an exceptional person.

Howard Segal, a professor of history at UMaine, said he first met Smith when Segal came to the university for his interview in 1985. He said thereafter they became close friends.

“Dave Smith was remarkable, having mastered — depending on how you counted — four or five different fields of history,” Segal said.

Segal said Smith knew the history of Maine, including lumbering and forestry. Smith had detailed knowledge of the history of climate change, World War II and author H.G. Wells, about whom he wrote a biography titled “Desperately Mortal.” Segal said “most historians might be able to claim expertise in one” field of study they know in detail, sometimes two.

“I’ve never known anybody who had mastery of more than two fields,” Segal said. “Dave, as I say, had a master of five fields.”

Smith wrote the first and only history of UMaine — titled “The First Century: A History of the University of Maine, 1865-1965.”

In a university press release, President Robert Kennedy said: “David exemplified the land-grant university philosophy in many ways, by applying his life’s work to studying and teaching in areas critical to understanding our state in historical context.”

Segal said Smith was exceptional in his ability to make connections between different aspects of history and science, rather than being a walking encyclopedia.

Smith was one of the founders of the Climate Change Institute on campus, a research group that focuses on the interaction between humans and the natural world.

“[The institute] was a very interesting, pioneering idea,” said Stephen Jacobson, UMaine professor of biology, who also knew Smith.

“He was a real pioneer and a great scholar,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said Smith was a treasured colleague of his and that Smith could “discuss any subject knowledgeably” and could quote from books he had read years prior.

“He was heavily engaged in all of the activities of the institution,” Jacobson said.

Smith worked at the institute analyzing records of climate from previous centuries, including diaries and crop records — mostly concerning New England. He used this information to compare today’s climate to those of the past, which conventional science sometimes has trouble analyzing. Jacobson said Smith collected documents from as far back as the 1700s and received a National Science Foundation grant to conduct his study — the first ever to be awarded to a historian in the United States, according to Jacobson, who said the institute is still using Smith’s findings in its research. Smith was working until the day he died and would attend UMaine seminars whenever his health allowed.

“He was one of the top scholars of the University of Maine,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said Smith “did scholarship the way a true scholar does it,” meaning he started his research using original historical documents instead of other’s findings.

Smith was one of the “faculty five,” a group of professors instrumental in lobbying the Maine Legislature about a decade ago for grants from the federal government and the private sector.

“These five guys investigated, lobbied the state Legislature, lobbied the governor, and eventually got seed money appropriated by the state Legislature and approved by the governor to fund any number of investments in science and technology,” Segal said. “Many of them have more than recouped the investment over the years.”

“I think it’s fair to say that the faculty five did more than anybody else in trying to elevate the University of Maine both in terms of the actual dollars for operating and also in various projects, in various areas at the University of Maine,” Segal said.

Segal said Smith was the only humanist among the faculty five, and because of that and his background, he brought “legitimacy” to the group’s efforts.

Smith was respected and didn’t hesitate to express his opinions. Segal said Smith was open-minded.

Segal said there are not many people who could match Smith’s expertise.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years Sylvia Smith, his son Clayton and his daughter Katherine.