Smith, (Charles) Page (Ward)

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Smith, (Charles) Page (Ward)

(b. 6 September 1917 in Baltimore, Maryland; d. 28 August 1995 in Santa Cruz, California), historian, author, and founding provost of Cowell College, first college of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Page Smith was the son of William Ward Smith, a native of New York, an aspiring but generally unsuccessful politician, businessman, and farmer, briefly secretary to New York governor Nathan Miller. His mother was Ellen West Smith, a banker’s daughter. Page had one brother, John, born when he was five years old.

Smith attended the Gilman School, a private boys’ school in Baltimore, and Dartmouth College, from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1940. He then enlisted, with a group of college friends, in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Smith was drafted into the United States Army in 1941, in the first draft call, and assigned to the Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division. He was selected to attend one of the early officer candidate classes at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and, as a newly commissioned second lieutenant, his first assignment was as a mortar instructor at the Infantry School.

On 11 July 1942, at Fort Benning, Smith married artist Eloise Pickard of Durham, North Carolina, whom he met after buying one of her paintings while he was on maneuvers in North Carolina. During the fifty-three years of their marriage, the Smiths reared four children, Ellen Davidson, Carter Smith, Anne Easley, and Eliot Smith.

In 1942 First Lieutenant Smith was assigned to command of Company C the Tenth Mountain Division, and the newlyweds moved to Colorado. The Tenth Division fought in Italy, where in the battle of Mount Belvedere, Smith was seriously wounded; he was subsequently awarded a Bronze Star and discharged from service with the rank of captain. He enrolled in the history department at Harvard University and, with Eloise and his children, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1948 Smith received a master of arts degree and continued his studies in American history under Samuel Eliot Morison, for whom he was a graduate assistant. Smith received a Ph.D. in 1951 and then a fellowship at the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, and appointment as an instructor at the College of William and Mary, also in Williamsburg.

In 1953 the Smiths moved from Williamsburg to Los Angeles, where Page became an assistant professor in the history department of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Smith remained there until 1964, when Dean E. McHenry, a former UCLA colleague and now chancellor of the University of California’s new campus at Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz), invited Smith to become provost of Cowell College, the first college of UC Santa Cruz.

The new campus, beautifully situated in the redwoods above town and with a panoramic view of Monterey Bay, provided an opportunity for several innovations that were of interest to Smith. Most important were the residential colleges, of which six were initially planned, and subordination of traditional grades to what was called a “Narrative Evaluation System,” the introduction of which was a matter of great interest to Smith. This system was admired by most students and a number of faculty members, who felt that, compared to letter grades, it provided a more accurate reflection of the quality of a student’s work. However, it was time-consuming, both for instructors and for transcript-readers, and professional schools complained of the difficulty in relating narrative evaluations to their quantitative admission standards. The university’s academic senate later voted to depend more on letter grades, although narrative evaluation was not entirely abandoned.

Smith continued as provost of Cowell College until 1969, when he gave up his administrative responsibilities to return to teaching history. However, in June 1973 he resigned from the university to protest its failure to award tenure to Paul Lee, a friend and an unpublished assistant professor of religious studies. The Smiths had in 1969 moved from the Cowell provost’s house to a country house on Pine Flat Road in nearby Bonny Doon, where they kept horses and chickens. Smith, Paul Lee, and Mary Holmes, an admired art historian who had joined Smith from UCLA, established what they called the Penny University, which gathered once a week at Cafe Pergolesi in downtown Santa Cruz to discuss the meaning of life and other subjects. Smith also collaborated with Paul Lee to organize the William James Association, which concerned itself with homeless people and (at Eloise’s suggestion) with teaching art to children and prisoners.

During this period, Smith devoted much of his time to writing. He began his People’s History of the United States, ultimately an eight-volume series distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club. His Harvard mentor, Samuel Eliot Morison, called the first two volumes (A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution, 1976) “a great and magnificent work,” praising its narrative style in particular.

Smith published more than a score of substantial books. The first was his biography of James Wilson (1956), followed in 1962 by the two-volume John Adams, which won both the Bancroft Award and the Kenneth Roberts Memorial Award. In 1964 came The Historian and History, and in 1966 As a City upon a Hill: The Town in American History. In 1970 it was Daughters of the Promised Land: Women in American History.

Smith was fond of chickens, of which the Pine Flat ranch had a substantial flock. He discovered a kindred spirit in Professor Charles Daniel, a biologist with whom Smith coauthored The Chicken Book (1975). That year Smith also published A Letter from My Father: The Strange, Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to His Son, Page Smith, another anomaly in the progression of Smith’s scholarly historiography. In his introduction to this one-volume abridgment of 10,000 manuscript pages, Smith wrote:

It was my father’s strange conceit to write me a letter, the writing of which extended over a period of more than thirty years, and which, ultimately, reached ten thousand pages in length, a total of over two and a half million words.

Although the letter recalled Ward Smith’s business and political endeavors, its greatest emphasis was in detailed description of his sexual adventures; women apparently found him irresistible. His son Page debated for some time whether to destroy it or publish it, but the historiographer finally triumphed.

In 1978 he published The Constitution: A Documentary and Narrative History. The next twelve years were devoted to the completion of the People’s History, except for the appearance of Dissenting Opinions (1984), comprising twenty-nine essays on history and education, and Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (1990), a sharply critical account of the evolution of American universities. Smith published two additional books in 1995, Democracy on Trial: Japanese-American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II and Old Age Is Another Country: A Traveller’sGuide; the latter was the outgrowth of a weekly column, “Coming of Age,” that Smith wrote for the entertainment of the elderly and published in the San Francisco Examiner.

Smith died of leukemia on 28 August 1995, two days after his wife, Eloise, succumbed to cancer. Friends attending their joint funeral filled and surrounded the Calvary Episcopal Church in Santa Cruz.

Smith’s papers are being gathered in the research library at UCLA. Smith’s introduction to Dissenting Opinions (1984) and his introduction and afterword in A Letter from My Father (1975) provide useful personal detail. Before his death, Smith had composed a brief obituary, which is included in a longer piece published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (29 Aug. 1995). Other obituaries appear in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 29 Aug. 1995). The UC Santa Cruz library has an oral history of Smith’s early years in Santa Cruz.

David W. Heron