Larger-than-life: Geoff Smith

Portrait of Geoff Smith

If you knew or ever met Geoff Smith, you’ll understand why it’s well-nigh impossible to capture the man’s essence in print. He was a larger-than-life presence, an iconoclast with boundless energy, a probing intellect, peerless communication skills, and a wonderfully unbridled sense of humour that was coupled with an awareness of life’s absurdities.

Over the course of his 51-year association with Queen’s – 37 years as a professor in History (1969–2001), four years in Kinesiology (2002–2006), and 15 subsequent years as professor emeritus, Dr. Smith fashioned an enduring tricolour legacy.

His scholarly reputation was international. He was – among many other engagements – a longtime member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations; he served nine years on the executive of the Peace History Society (including a 1995–97 stint as president); and in 2015 he accepted the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his writing life, while Dr. Smith’s insights were astute and nuanced, they were accessible to academics and lay audiences alike. As they say, the proof of that was in the proverbial pudding: his PhD thesis, published in 1973 as To Save a Nation, garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination. What’s more, throughout his lengthy career, Smith’s articles, columns, and letters regularly appeared in academic journals as well as in newspapers and general-interest magazines. Then, too, he was a frequent guest commentator on radio and television – as he was on July 16, 2016, when, Cassandra-like, he cautioned listeners of CBC Radio’s The Current that those who underestimated newly crowned GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump did so at their own peril.

All that aside, it was in his role as classroom teacher that generations of alumni remember Geoff Smith best, and with such great fondness. Understandably so, for he was endlessly inventive when it came to finding ways to engage his students. For more than three decades, History 273: Conspiracy and Dissent in 20th-century America was one of the most popular undergrad lecture courses taught at Queen’s. 

It often seemed as if Dr. Smith’s lectures were torn from that day’s headlines, yet they were never a one-way flow of information; he cared about his students and respected their opinions. That regard was reciprocated. A 2002 Queen’s Journal poll hailed History 273 as the “Best Class at Queen’s” while lauding Dr. Smith as “Best Professor.” A perennial nominee for campus teaching awards, in 2004 he received the Frank Knox Award, Queen’s top teaching honour bestowed by students. “Geoff Smith was known and loved for being entertaining at lectures and was generous with his time and energy that students so greedily sponge up,” says Mary O’Riordan, MA’83, Ed’83, one of his former students.

Dr. Smith’s sensitivities were integral to the person he was. After all, he came of age in the 1960s as a student at the University of California’s Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses – the latter renowned as a hotbed of counterculture and student protest. 

In 1969, Dr. Smith’s wife, Bonnie, was dismayed to learn that he had been offered a teaching job at Queen’s and wanted them and their three children to move to Canada “for a couple of years.” As it happened, that planned brief sojourn would last a lifetime. “Being [at Queen’s]… afforded me a degree of autonomy that I might not have had if I’d stayed in the U.S.,” he once explained. “I always felt free to speak, write, and teach what I consider to be critically constructive readings of history – America’s historic strengths as well as its weaknesses.” 

Tall and athletic, Dr. Smith played Division One varsity basketball at Santa Barbara as an undergrad. The unfortunate legacy of that was the wonky knees that hobbled him in his later years and necessitated corrective surgeries. Despite this, Dr. Smith carried his “hoops addiction” to Queen’s, serving a stint in the early 1990s as an assistant coach with the men’s varsity squad and fundraising for both the men’s and women’s programs. And his boosterism didn’t end there. As a regular attendee at Gaels home games for half a century, he never hesitated to venture courtside to act as a cheerleader when he felt the home side needed a lift.

Kingstonians were also familiar with Dr. Smith’s unbridled enthusiasm and came to appreciate his commitment to progressive causes and peace activism. In the early 1990s, he had fun (and raised some hackles) as host of Mr. Fix-It, a weekly local cable television show that featured viewer call-ins, consumer advocacy, and ’60s-style guerrilla street theatre à la Michael Moore. 

As a retiree, Dr. Smith continued to write, took up knitting (crafting scarves for friends), played guitar, painted, mastered social media, and mounted a spirited one-man campaign to curb student binge drinking, especially during the annual Homecoming Weekend celebrations. 

In his sunset years, a series of falls in 2019 resulted in a concussion, and a battle with depression – an old nemesis that resurfaced after many years of dormancy. Both these afflictions took a toll on Dr. Smith’s physical and emotional health. Fortunately for him, he endured with the love and support of his second wife, sociologist and feminist scholar Roberta Hamilton. The two met in 1983, moved in together in 1986, and after 25 years as a couple, they wed in 2011.  

Sadly, Dr. Smith’s planned sojourn of “a couple of years” at Queen’s came to an abrupt and unexpected end April 1. Three days after undergoing successful bowel surgery at Kingston General Hospital, his heart suddenly stopped and could not be revived. 

“The only downside of knowing Dr. Smith is losing him,” says Mary O’Riordan. “In retrospect, the best lesson he taught was to simply embrace life. If we ever prove to be the people that Geoff – athlete, historian, and friend – said we could become, then his spirit has moved on to the next generation.” 

Geoffrey S. Smith, professor emeritus, longtime faculty member of the Department of History and the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, died in Kingston, April 1, aged 80. 

Ken Cuthbertson was one of Geoff Smith’s former students and protégés who, for more than 45 years, was lucky enough also to be one of his friends.

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