February 24, 2020
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Seminal UMaine figure David Smith dies at 80

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
David C. Smith, UM Professor of History. (Bangor Daily News file photo by Marc Blanchette) 5/25/1990

ORONO, Maine — A retired longtime University of Maine history professor who is considered to have helped elevate the stature of the university as a research institution and was known as an unofficial UMaine historian, died Saturday in Bangor.

David C. Smith, Bird & Bird professor emeritus of American history who spent nearly 25 years at UM before retiring in 1994, was 80.

The Lewiston-born Smith’s studies and research were in the wide-ranging areas of U.S. agriculture and forest history, historic climatology, women’s history and the writer H.G. Wells.

He also wrote about the history of UM itself in “The First Century: A History of the University of Maine, 1865-1965.”

“Most historians are … lucky or hardworking enough to master one field or a second field,” said UMaine history professor Howard Segal, who recalled being interviewed by Smith in December 1985 before Segal joined the faculty. “I’ve never known anyone who was a master in five fields. He was just unbelievable. It just doesn’t happen.”

Smith’s research into the life and work of Wells gained the UMaine professor an international reputation, and he was known nationally at the time for his work in climate change, Segal said.

His books about UMaine and the history of papermaking in Maine were seminal works, according to another longtime UM faculty member who worked closely with Smith.

“He was probably the best colleague that I had,” said retired UMaine geology professor Hal Borns, himself a leading researcher while at the university. “Although he was a historian he was very much a scientist at the same time. [His interests were] eclectic rather than narrow.”

Smith was a member of the Faculty Five, who — along with George L. Jacobson Jr., Stephen A. Norton, Malcolm Hunter and George Markowsky — embarked on a campaign about 10 years ago to convince the Legislature of the importance of UMaine as a research institution.

“They spent a lot of time convincing legislators and governors that seed money invested by the Legislature would probably pay off in the long run, and I think it’s fair to say that it was a wise investment,” Segal said. “The university has benefited enormously from various grants, from both federal government and private sector, that likely would not have come about without those five.”

Borns said Smith was “a major mover and shaker” in the beginnings of what now is known as UMaine’s internationally regarded Climate Change Institute, which Borns founded 20 years ago.

Smith and Borns were at work on a book about a medical doctor and naturalist in the 1860s who became interested in the Ice Age, Borns said Tuesday.

Smith graduated from South Paris High School in 1947 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1948, serving on the USS Coral Sea, according to an obituary submitted to the Bangor Daily News.

He later graduated from Farmington State Teachers College, and earned master’s degrees in education and history and government from UM. Smith had a doctorate from Cornell University.

Smith taught for five years at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., before arriving at UM to teach.

In his lifetime, according to the obituary, Smith gave more than 20 invited lectures at universities in Europe, Canada and the U.S., wrote or edited more than 30 books, and had more than 125 scholarly articles published.

Smith also was active in community and politics, serving as a delegate to the 1974 and 1976 Democratic National Conventions, according to a press release from UMaine.

Smith is survived by his wife of 56 years, Sylvia (White) Smith, a son, a daughter, a grandson and great-grandson.

There will be a private family gathering in the spring.

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