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Remembering G. Owen Smith

April 27, 2008

For the first 15 years that I had gainful employment here in Colorado, it was at the Red Rocks Community College in Golden where I was a one man Anthropology Dept within a broader Social Science Dept. For most of that time, the president of what was at first the Red Rocks Campus of Community College of Denver, later, after the threat of a successful union drive peeled off to become Red Rocks Community College, was G. Owen Smith.

For some reason, I was thinking about Owen, as we called him, just yesterday on the long car ride home from Salt Lake City where I had spent several days schmoozing with the Mormons, visiting the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, and the Middle East Collection – some 150,000 volumes in the Marriott Library on the campus. And I wondered, just as he was passing away it seems, if Owen was still this side of the great divide. My mother and sisters would read something `psychic’ into such timely memories (and therefore I won’t mention it to them), but the source is probably more mundane.

Probably it had to do with what had transpired in Utah. I had just heard about more administrative hassles at University of Utah – the stupid, boring variety that seem so common in academia these days and my mind harkened back to a contrast – to the good old days when Owen was first vice president and then president at Red Rocks. He’s one of the few good administrators I’ve worked under in what is now 42 years of teaching in higher education. Virginia Culver’s obituary of him in today’s Denver Post does capture the essence of the man – quiet, perhaps not humble, but certainly not arrogant and someone who was about as competent an administrator as I have ever known.

And he was, if I remember right, a Republican to boot! But a dying breed of that party – geniunely liberal Republican – religious, but no bible thumper, conservative, but still at least in the dealing I had with him, usually fair. I have often wondered how he viewed his party’s long time lurch to the right and wouldn’t be surprised if it troubled him more than a little. He believed strongly in quality public higher education and dedicated much of his adult life to improving it. The years he managed the Red Rocks Campus were, for that school, something approaching its glory years. It was such a pleasure to teach there and quite frankly if things hadn’t fallen apart in the state community college system, I would have gladly stayed there and taught there for my entire academic career. But then, things did fall apart, although I don’t blame Owen for that.

Although few today would admit it – the community college system in Colorado – along with Metropolitan State College of Denver which began at around the same time – were offspring of the great decade (the sixties of course). All those civil rights demonstrations, the militancy of groups like the Crusade for Justice, the American Indian Movement and the plethora of peace groups dedicated to ending the last US orchestrated international fiasco before the present one, did have their effect.

While on the one hand that decade convinced those in right wing power circles to re-orient the politics to prevent the sixties from reoccurring, still those in power had to make some concessions `to the masses’ `the mob’ as some called us … and one of those concessions was the extension of inexpensive, good quality public education to working class folk and ethnic minorities. Thus was born the community college system and Metro State. The Auraria campus – that houses Community College of Denver, Metro State and also University of Colorado Denver – remains the most multi-cultural, mixed class, urban-rural institution within a thousand miles in any direction. So much of the heritage remains.

What made Red Rocks in those days so special?

It is easy to explain: the college provided quality business, academic and occupational courses within the same setting. There were first rate philosophers like Humberto Mojica teaching along side brick layers like Dick Rummel (whose son I ran into a few months ago in a breakfast place nearby). There were students majoring in diesel mechanics taking psychology and anthropology majors taking plumbing.

There were a slew of Vietnam vets trying to reconstruct their lives, there was my life long friends Nicanor Ulibarri and Alan Marks (who runs a diesel repair shop on Alamedia), there was Alan Culpin who went on to make a fortune in used books (and who was an excellent history teacher), and many many others. Of course there were some jerks, weeds among the roses…a clown of an administrator I ran into a few years ago in a liquor store buying a $100 bottle of scotch, a former priest who once called me `a chicano’ because he didn’t like my independent spirit – I took it as a compliment. And there were Judy Harrell and Annette Adlefinger, and wonderful and completent librarians, and Carla Joy, Walt Schreibman who I ran into in Argonaut Liquors six or seven years ago, Bill Wellisch who know lives in Edgewater, etc. etc.

There were a couple of unsavory types who specialized in hitting on newly divorced and vulnerable women…one of them being one of the campus presidents who followed Smith in his position. There was also a Christian fundamentalist Colorado State-educated woman who spent a good deal of her emotional energy makings sure that no student-painted nudes adorned the campus walls, and a student affairs director who couldn’t seem to avoid scam after scam and who very well might have wound up a very rich man.

It was the mix between academic and vocational gave the place a genuine dynamism. There was very little academic elitism (as I recall) among the academics,…most of us wanted to be teaching in just such a setting. Whatever I taught the first few years I cannot say, but after that – it takes a while to learn how to teach – I became, mostly on my own, a pretty decent anthropology teacher.

And there was Owen in the middle of it all most of the time.

Don’t get me wrong. He was no angel. He was a politically astute member of the `old boy’ Republican network, without which he would never have landed his job. And he could and did `play politics’. But when things got `heavy’ as we used to say – and they did in the early 1980s, Owen did what he could to save jobs – mine included. If not for him, I would have been fired as a result of budget cuts probably 3 years earlier. Then, like now, my political views were no secret. He didn’t seem to care. More importantly, Owen respected my teaching and that was all that counted for him. He was about as fair a man as I have ever worked for.

One story to exemplify this. My first public statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came during and after the October, 1973 War. As a reward for remarks I then made – admittedly intemperate – critical of Israels occupation of the 1967 Territories – what I shall refer to simply as a `committee of the faithful’ paid a visit to Smith to urge him to relieve me of my academic duties as I was, according to them, a danger to the state’s youth. The group included a petit and feistly blonde woman, the wife of a then famous liquor store owner, the then director of the regional Anti-Defamation League honing his behind-the-scenes skills at character assassination, two rabbis.

Smith, gracious as ever, met with them for 15 minutes and then essentially threw them out of his office. He called me in later and laughing told me the story, adding somewhat presciently `Rob…you’re too disorganized to be a public danger…and besides you’re a good teacher’. He then made a comment I’ll never forget about how important it was to be fair to `both the Jews and the Arabs’.

They don’t make Republican college administrators like that anymore, at least not to my knowledge.

In the late 1970s already, conservatives in the state legislature were already sharpening their knives. When the recession in the early 1980s hit, they used that as an excuse for a massive restructuring, and radical gutting of the Community College system. The academic programs – especially the Social Sciences – were butchered. It seemed a bit risky to have have diesel mechanics studying philosophy and psychologists who could fix the wiring of their homes. Actually so many of the quality vocational programs also were destroyed. Watching it happen was one of the saddest times of my life. As the pressure mounted, I knew I didn’t have long for the place. I got laid off three times – beat them twice, in part with the help of Smith’s intervention…but in 1985 I got tired of spending much of my teaching and extra time fighting for my job.

Owen Smith could not stop those changes, but he didn’t support them either. Strange as it might sound, we shared a common vision and not long after I left the place, so did he. He retired. About five years ago I ran into him and wife Mary in that great meeting place of Denver’s western suburbs – COSTCO. He’d come down from the mountains to stock up. We talked for 15 minutes. For a while there in the good old days, we’d shared something that we both knew was long gone. And we’d connected and he’d stood up for me when it counted. There are people like him in this world. Not many, but maybe just enough.

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