Chris Smith taught history at ASU. Now he’s a part of Mill Avenue history
History is a collection of stories.
It’s easy to get bogged down in dates, dead presidents, or disputes about what really happened, but Chris Smith brought history to life.
If you took a history class at Arizona State University a couple of decades ago, or shopped at Old Town Books in Tempe, you may have run into Smith. He was known for his teaching, his stories, his love of books and his outlandish neckties. His death in June brought an end to a storied career and a local bookstore.
“Great storytelling is great narrative history, or can be. And Chris was a genius at that,” said ASU emeritus professor Mary Rothschild.
When Smith wasn’t teaching, he took on part-time jobs: gardener, factory worker, painter, bus driver, Santa Claus, waiter and bartender. The work helped him learn about American culture, a life-long passion in the classroom.
“He had a soul deep kindness. And that radiated out to his students,” Rothschild said.
He supported students of all ages — Rothschild recalls a master’s candidate in his 60s. A lot of professors would not have paid much attention to a student that old. Smith did. He was also a feminist and a supportive of his coworkers.
“There were some very hard things about being a young woman professor at ASU in the '70s,” Rothschild said. “It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of discrimination, and Chris was fierce in defending me."
Marcie Hutchinson, who taught history in Mesa and at ASU, recalls taking one of Smith’s classes after she moved to the Valley.
“His approach to history was a people’s history, and it was as important to listen to a sharecropper, a steel worker, a blues man, as it was to listen to the president of the United States,” Hutchinson said.
Smith helped launch a lot of academic careers, but he told his colleagues that teaching was as important as research, said Catherine O’Donnell, who taught with him at ASU.
“He said 'you’re going to reach more people through your classes than are ever going to read your books, or your articles.' And he was such a nice man, and he would always say, 'and I’m sure lots of people are going to read your books,'” O’Donnell said.
Just about every inch of Smith’s office was covered with books. And papers. The walls were spackled with posters, photos, buttons from political campaigns.
“He had this famous office. It was filled with books, and memorabilia, and just general Chris-ness,” O’Donnell said.
The Office was once used as a movie set in the film "Campus Man."
“Somehow it was not off-putting. Right? It didn’t feel chaotic. It just felt like this is this sort of cozy, booky world of this professor, and there were always students in his office and he was always spending time with them,” O’Donnell said.
A former colleague, Phil Vandermeer, described the Social Sciences building, where The Office was located.
“There is a fountain in the center, and plants, and birds come in, and it was always wonderfully cool,” Vandermeer said.
The Office was up two flights of stairs and around the corner on the second floor, just a short trip for a student running a little late.
“The door was almost always open, and so you walk down the hall and there was Chris in his office,” he said.
Vic Linoff, a long-time friend and Tempe merchant, said that sometime after Smith was tenured, one of his bosses told him he should wear a tie at work.
“And he said, ‘really? I need to wear ties?’ And they said 'yes,'” Linnoff said.
“So he started going to yard sales, and thrift stores, and bought the ugliest, tackiest ties that you could ever imagine. And they were awful. And nobody could say anything to him because, his argument was, ‘you didn’t tell me what kind of tie, you just said a necktie. And I’m wearing one,’" Linnoff said.
His passion for books led him to open a used book store, Old Town Books in Tempe.
“He loved talking to people. And he loved talking to people about books. Wanted people to enjoy them, and improve literacy in the community,” Linoff said.
As the digital world began to assert itself into our lives, Smith refused to let it in. He didn’t even have an answering machine.
"I don’t believe he ever used a computer in his life," Linoff said.
Smith died in June. COVID-19 was still a concern, and there was no funeral. Word spread slowly. A series of sales have since helped empty the store’s shelves, with benefits going to local libraries, nonprofits and other organizations. Some books may even go to prisons. A bag of books sold for $15 at one sale. The place was packed.
“He just was a unique one of a kind person,” Linoff said.
His colleagues have also organized a memorial to celebrate Smith’s life and passion for history. It will take place on campus on March 26. The last book sale will take place during the Tempe Festival of the Arts.