One mistake changed his future

Monday, September 16, 2019

UNH's R. Scott Smith

Editor's Note: This is one installment in a series featuring UNH faculty telling their stories in their own words.

R. Scott Smith, professor of classics, humanities and Italian studies

"I am an accidental professor. I come from a little place called Mechanicsville, Virginia. My mother was the only daughter of a woman who had 13 brothers and sisters. She raised me as a single mother for part of my life before she remarried. My stepfather — I just call him my father — was an accountant, and my mom worked for the phone company. He had attended college at the University of North Carolina but had not completed his degree, and my mom never went to college; however, they were very committed to raising their kids in a way that led to college. Their focus was on what we’d refer to as practical courses today. I can remember my father suggesting I take courses in business. I think, for them, college meant studying something that was marketable. They did not expect I would end up a college professor.

I was always interested in learning things. I loved music, art, sports, science, languages, reading. I wanted to go to Duke University because they had a great basketball program. My mom, on a whim, took me to a presentation at Mary Washington College, and that’s where I ended up studying classics. My path began in middle school, however.

In our town, middle school was grades 8 and 9, with high school for grades 10 through 12. I remember sitting down with a guidance counselor to choose my courses for eighth grade. We had several language options listed in alphabetical order: French, German, Latin, Spanish. I asked him which was the weirdest one. He told me Latin, so that’s the one I chose. I had no interest in the subject; I just wanted to be different. It was a typical 13-year-old move.

My Latin teacher was Mrs. T. V. Pomfrey, and she was a firebrand of a teacher. We did not necessarily get along. I didn’t care much about the class, and about three weeks in she told us we were having a test. I didn’t know it was coming, and I didn’t know the material, so I decided to look at my best friend’s test since he was a really good student. And then I heard her voice.

“Mr. Smith? Will you please come here?”

I was caught, and I was scared, approaching her with my test paper in my hands.

But she said nothing about it — I just did not do well on that exam.

In true teenager fashion, I got mad at her for my mistake. I decided I would prove to her that I could do it on my own without cheating. She had energy abounding, and that type of energy, that drive, is contagious. I spent whole weekends just doing Latin and went on to take five years of the subject in middle school and high school.

Virginia has a really rich tradition of Latin studies and opportunities. In 1985, I was part of the National Junior Classical League, which happened to be held at UNH that year. I stayed on the eighth floor of Stoke Hall. I remember the elevator was broken. That was a lot of stairs, even for a young kid. I attended the first Virginia Governor’s School of Latin between my junior and senior year, and Robert Boughner of Mary Washington taught us Greek. It was a really great experience. I was fascinated by the idea of an old culture that has had so much impact on what we do in the present. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to share that; I wanted to be a high school teacher.

When I got to college, I decided to try studying Ancient Greek, and it changed my life. We had 2.5 faculty each teaching four classes each, every semester, and yet they were always available to talk. Their lives were about their students; their job was to teach undergraduates cool stuff. I began thinking maybe I wanted to do that as well. Their commitment wore off on me. I’ve seen faculty give their life’s blood to students, and it paid off. I remember when my professor told me I’d be reading Virgil’s “Aeneid”— in its entirety in Latin. I was quite literally living in the reading room. What he taught me was when you devote yourself fully to something, you truly can do it.

During the summers, I played in the King’s Dominion Clown Band in gaudy costumes wearing red Chuck Taylors. That was how I spent my summer for seven years, starting during my sophomore year in high school. It was great; we performed five shows a day, and during my breaks, I’d read Greek.

I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, a typical midwestern school that had a great classics program and one of the largest classical libraries in the country. It’s an incredible subject that I want other people to love as much as I do. Not everything has to be practical for it to be important. We need intellectual curiosity and cultural understanding. If we don’t value those, we’re going to be in trouble.

That mistake I made back in middle school led to a career of great joy and personal satisfaction. I have never once had a day when I dreaded going to work."

Jennifer Saunders | Communications and Public Affairs | | 603-862-3585
Jennifer Saunders | Communications and Public Affairs | | 603-862-3585