TRIBUTE TO JIM SMELTZER
By: Sherry Smeltzer Barnes, Daughter
Being the youngest child of Dr. Jim Smeltzer—or “Doc” as he was lovingly know to his Northwest Missouri State University colleagues and students—has come with challenges through the years, but also pride and maybe just a little prestige, too. It’s been more than a decade since he went home to be with his Lord after a five-year battle with a rare form of cancer.
It’s an honor to share a little of his story...and mine.
On December 6, 2016, I received a message from my sister, Lisa. She said that an individual with ties to Enid, OK, had contacted my dad’s former secretary at Northwest in Maryville, MO, where my dad taught physics and astronomy for more than 30 years, and where my mother and sister still live. Word was that Tim Gregg was looking for information about my dad for a project he was working on. The details about that project were sketchy at best. Since I was in Oklahoma, living in dad’s hometown of Sapulpa and working for Bank of Oklahoma in Tulsa, it made sense for me to represent my father’s memory, so, I reached out to Tim.
Little did I know my subsequent conversation with him would open a part of my dad’s history that he had never discussed with me.
I knew my dad had been a high school science teacher in Enid. My brother, Mark, was born there, but there wasn’t much else out of the ordinary about the family’s three-year Enid experience. Or so I thought. Words cannot explain my feeling when Tim told me that a campaign would soon be underway to restore the observatory that my father had built in 1963 on the roof of Enid High School. I had no idea. Dad had never mentioned it in all our years together.
Because I lived “close” to Enid—certainly closer than the rest of my family who reside in Missouri, Tim asked if I would be interested in attending a meeting in Enid of a group he called “Friends of the Observatory.” “Of course I would,” I told him. “In turn, you will be doing my family a great honor by preserving a part of Dad’s legacy.”
Four days later, I got my first view of the Currie-Gregg Observatory at Enid High School.
I could tell instantly it was my father’s handiwork.
Growing up in Sapulpa, Jim Smeltzer was both an athlete and a musician. Given his career choice, it’s not surprising he was a good student, too. Dad graduated from Sapulpa High School in 1956, and married my mother, Naoma, in 1958. He received his undergraduate degree from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1959 and his Masters degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1961. While his ultimate goal was to obtain a doctoral degree, due to financial constraints he entered the workforce taking a teaching position at Enid High School in 1961.
In Enid, while my father was apparently raising funds for a college-grade observatory at the high school, my parents saved enough money of their own for dad to get started on his PhD. So, in 1965, Mom, Dad, Lisa and Mark moved to Stillwater, OK, where Dad began advanced-degree studies at Oklahoma State University—but not before he secured a nine-inch reflecting telescope to put inside his observatory at Enid High School before stepping down there.
Ironically, that telescope remains in place to this day, still serving as an important educational resource for astronomy students at the school.
Two years into Dad’s studies at Oklahoma State, I came into the world. Dad then finished his doctorate in 1968, under the tutelage of the well-known college astronomer Dr. Beverly Bookmyer at the University of Arizona’s Mount Lemmon Observatory in Tuscon. From there, the Smeltzer family moved yet again, to the small midwest town of Maryville, MO, where Dad became a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Northwest in 1969. He retired from that position in 2003.
Throughout his college teaching career, Dad also continued to be a student. He was a “NASA educator” for many years, meaning he had access to NASA resources for educational purposes. He regularly attended NASA conferences where he was exposed to the latest and greatest about space travel and exploration. As a family, it was not unusual for us to host NASA officials in our home when they came to Maryville to speak at the university. At the tender age of eight and thanks to my father’s NASA connections, I got to touch a mysterious piece of composite material in Dad’s Northwest astronomy lab. When torched on one side, the other side remained cool! This turned out to be a part of what would become the Space Shuttle thermal protection system.
Going to work with Dad and experiencing his science “toys” was a fairly common occurrence for me. He had holograms, gyroscopes, telescopes, celestial maps, globes, and who could forget his “talking computer.” “He saw the cat,” I remember it saying in a strange mechanical voice. Needless to say, this elicited squeals of delight from my father’s impressionable youngest daughter.
When Dad got busy with his students, my siblings and I sometimes would venture down the hall to the geology department. There, we found a rock museum which included fossils of dinosaur bones! I also remember once making a late-night trip to Dad’s astronomy lab to view a comet. On the way there it was cold and sleeting, but eventually, the skies cleared and we got to see Comet Kohoutek! There was also the time that Dad showed up at school and taught classes all day dressed in a Darth Vader costume.
“Sherry, I am your father.”
I attended Northwest from 1985 to 1988, receiving a BS in Accounting (and transitioning to my current career in information technology in 2011). During my college years, Dad was the only astronomy professor at the school, so even though I was interested in the subject (and it would have filled a general science requirement), I elected not to take his class. Why? I just didn't want to put him, or me, in that position. I knew he would likely be much harder on me that other students. Plus, since I shared “Doc” Smeltzer’s last name, it would have been impossible to pretend we weren't father and daughter.
Even though I never graced his lecture hall or lab as a student, his teaching was not limited to the classroom because his love for science was a way of life for him. Not only did he exhibit this with his own children, but also he passed on his passion for knowledge with my sons, Matt and Andrew.
In 2001, Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic insulinoma. Over the next five years, the two of us traveled four times to Switzerland for treatments. Dad always would ask the doctors deep probing questions in an effort to understand the disease that would eventually claim his life. He once told one of the physicians treating him, “I’d think this was pretty neat if it wasn’t happening to me.”
As for the hallmark of Dad’s teaching career? He received awards, too many to list. He appreciated the recognition, but the plaques, certificates and trophies were not important to him. His office looked like a storage closet and his lab was always filled with the most amazing scientific equipment. Where he felt most alive, I believe, was when he was with his students.
For me, his legacy became clear on the night of the visitation service in Maryville after he died. I couldn’t believe the number of former students who travelled hours to be with our family as we honored and celebrated his life. Since that day, I continue to see his influence in my own children. Soon after his grandfather’s death, Matt made the decision to pursue a career in music education. Dad loved music, and my brother, Mark, is a musician in Kansas City.
My other son, Andrew, inherited his granddad’s love for science and the great outdoors, and is currently studying Natural Resource and Ecology Management at Oklahoma State. Today, I see my father reflected in both my boys’ attitudes toward life and learning.
Andrew was able to join me that day in Enid last December when I met Tim and his wife, Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg. Dad would be so proud to have his dome bear the name of an astronaut. He would be happy, too, that Nancy has such a keen interest in education and is committed to working with students.
My entire family is grateful to the people of Enid for taking on the effort to revitalize the observatory my dad built more than a half century ago. What Tim didn’t know about my father, until my trip to Enid, was that one of the last things Dad did before retiring at Northwest was to supervise the construction of an observatory for the school near Mozingo Lake, just east of Maryville.
And, in my eyes, it bears a striking resemblance to the one at Enid High School.
Andrew and I are honored to be “Friends” of the Currie-Gregg Observatory. It is my prayer this campaign will keep my dad’s vision alive for students in Enid—and perhaps beyond, thanks to new technology—and that young people will be able to continue to gaze up in wonderment and follow Dr. Currie-Gregg’s advice to “always reach for the stars.”
The visit to the EHS observatory in December was an emotional and somewhat overwhelming experience for both Andrew and me. His Facebook post about the experience, which included pictures with Dr. Currie-Gregg in front of the dome, sums up my sentiments, too.
“Though it may not look like it, I was fighting tears the entire time I was in this dome. My grandfather was a physics and astronomy teacher at Enid High School before returning to OSU to pursue his doctorate. While teaching, he built an observatory on the roof of the school to introduce the wonders of the sky to his students. Some of my fondest memories of him were spent with telescopes, star maps and various physics toys. Being in a place he built that continues to encourage students is one of the most profound examples of making a difference in this life.”
EHS Astronomy Teachers