By Brad Bakke
It’s 8:45 a.m. In a dimly lit hallway in Bldg. 8 outside of Room 121, a half-dozen students are on the floor, debating events that happened more than 2,000 years ago, long before Christ walked the earth.
Class won’t begin for another 45 minutes, but the students are excited enough about the topic to gather early and share their thoughts and ideas.
One of them, Timothy Strange, explains that the students of Dr. William Smith’s Greek/Aegean class often arrive well ahead of the scheduled time.
“This is typical,” he says of the student gathering. “We have teachers all the time walking by going, ‘Why are there 15 students out here? What’s going on?’ We’re here just waiting to absorb him; we’re just listening for every word he says, just to catch it.”
So the question becomes, are the students drawn to the class … or are they drawn to the man who teaches it?
Turns out to be a bit of both.
”He has personal experiences; he has been to most of these places,” Strange says of Smith. “He has direct knowledge what he is teaching. You can see it, from the Lemon Forest in Greece to Yucatán; he breaks it down to where you really understand it.”
Inside Room122, with 35 minutes before the class begins, Smith stands at the white board with a marker in his hands, the room momentarily devoid of students, the board already half-full with notes.
His well-worn brown leather satchel sits open on the table next to the podium, with papers spilling out the top. A quick glance provides a sneak-peek at some of the artifacts that will help to shape the day’s class. Among them: a piece of alabaster from the ancient Greek palaces of Crete.
Smith is dressed in his signature blazer, studying his notes. He is tall and lanky with salt and pepper hair. His face resembles weathered leather, with well-earned character lines a prominent feature.
His students each pick up on a different characteristic.
Stephanie Hamel, a pre-nursing student, says, “He is Mr. Grandfather of knowledge. I can just imagine being his grandchild: ‘Grandpa, can we talk about …’ ‘First let me grab some popcorn.’ He would be the perfect grandpa.”
Student Aubrey Rodgers says, “He is the cowboy archaeologist/anthropologist. … You could tell right away, he is so tanned; he spends weeks and weeks out in the desert sun. … He has these experience lines – a sundried face; the old cowboy face that you don’t get from reading books.”
Student Dave Leaton says, “He is different from others teachers. What he teaches, he has lived. He has lived in most of those places, where most other anthropology instructors have not, and he has done these things and been there. ”
While the descriptions vary, the students are in overwhelming agreement that the instructor’s passion drives the man and bring them to his classes well ahead of the starting time.
The students call him Dr. Smith, often with a hint of reverence. And they are happy to sing his praises.
Leaton says, “Instead of just getting a degree in something and deciding that they want to teach it, Dr. Smith is different. He has the fire and passion to pass on his knowledge. And if you listen to him, you will learn things about people, other societies, and countries – about their past and the future – that you didn’t have any understanding of before.”
Rodgers says, “He kind of seems like almost a crazy old man because he is so passionate about his subject. Who else spends every summer wandering around old ruins?”
Muriel Michael, an anthropology student, says, “It’s clear, very clear, that Dr. Smith is passionate about his subjects. … He can relate ancient things to contemporary events or between cultures. He makes you realize that there is a much bigger picture. It makes me pause and look at things in more of an attempt to understand, rather just making assumptions about who people are.
“He kind of reminds me of Indiana Jones’ father.”
Smith says that his passion was ignited at an early age when he was introduced to a variety of cultures and different ethnicities.
“Early on I developed an obsession for old things and a respect of old things. And I developed a respect for ethnicities,” he says. “I grew up in a very multi-ethnic neighborhood: Mexicans, Greeks, Italians, and Japanese – those were my friends.
“And so I was exposed to different languages, different cultures, and different religions right away. And that was very instrumental. My parents’ lesson to me was to enjoy these differences in diversity – not to be threatened by it because they weren’t threatened by it.”
Smith’s father played a significant role in the future instructor’s early development.
“My dad’s respect for Native American things is probably what got me into it – coming eye to eye with a mummy who was thousands of years old,” he says.
“As a boy I went to the Los Angeles County Museum. I will never forget seeing my first mummy. I must have been 5 years old. I was on a school field trip … it was a school field trip,” and he adds this last line in a whisper, as if he’s returning to his time as a boy in California.
“I was so little. The mummy was in a glass case; I was eye level. I remember the rest of the class being taken away. I lingered alone with the mummy.
“I don’t know the identity of the mummy, but it was Egyptian. That Started it. And then I was made aware that I was part Native American through both of my parents, my dad especially.”
Fishing excursions to México also were a part of the mortar that paved the eventual path of Smith’s passion.
“I traveled to Mexico as a boy with my dad and uncles on fishing trips,” he says. “That changed me considerably. Part of the time I was on my own – all alone. Part of the time was driving all night, getting to these places to fish.
“I remember that as being very influential on me and how nice people were to me, out in the middle of nowhere.” Tiny little villages with “little stores and other things – I just never forgot that. That encouraged me to go back.
“Then later on, I started going back to México all the time, to Yucatan. And I started studying the Mayan language, the written language, the hieroglyphics. Written language is a big part of my thing.”
An early introduction into taboo culture also quickly became a part of Smith’s passion.
“I grew up on a cock-fighting ranch in eastern Oklahoma in the 1950s … spending my summers there until I was 13.”
He often hung around his father’s older brother, who was the brains behind the cock-fighting operation. And he can talk for hours about his experience with the birds.
“I fell in love with those chickens; I only have good memories of that. It really was a cultural thing,” he says.
“The preparation of those birds, the athletic training, and the nutrition: The people were much more careful about the chicken’s nutrition than they were about human nutrition. They had a conditioning parlor where they exercise: whole rooms, even a whole house, just for the chickens. … The chickens looked so macho. “
The interesting thing about Smith is that he can make the connection from fighting cocks to the ancient Greeks in the squeak of a marker on a white board.
“Even in my childhood experiences I see a lot of analogies,” he says. “The Greeks were into the fighting chickens … and giving gifts of roosters and even hens. And there are other places where chickens are important.”
The cobblestones of Smith’s pathways were laid during his days of traveling the globe.
“I bicycled all over Europe – lived in Greece, England – and México’s Yucatán. I traveled extensively in those places. I lived in the Southwest, where I went to the University of Arizona. I lived in Hawaii, in a Filipino village near Pauwela on Maui for months,” he says.
“I lived in Europe for three years. I lived on Crete. … Living in Europe really affected me. Mostly Greece, but I traveled all over Europe. But I stayed in Greece, on Crete and the islands.
“The Greeks had a tremendous effect on me in terms of academics and a respect for the past. The Greeks were totally aware of their own venerability, their worthiness. They were aware that everybody else in the world, especially the Europeans, was aware of that [history]. And it affected them, no matter how poor or rich they were.
“Even a poor fisherman knows that he is a Greek and knows about his past, and so he walked with pride.”
Smith says that his time in the Yucatán living with the Mayans drew parallel lines for him to Greece and fed his passion on all levels: the archaeologist, the cultural anthropologist, the linguistic anthropologist.
“I was learning about Mayan nomenclature about bees. At that time I had been a Greek scholar and had seen some similar words,” he says.
But he developed Malaria, and that brought another revelation. With the malaria came fever, weight loss, nausea. Smith says that he’s still slightly affected by it today.
“The Mayans rejected the idea of Malaria. They say [it happened] because I was messing with the bees. They said, ‘You and that beekeeper did not apologize to the bees for the ones you killed when you were taking honey.’ We were supposed to apologize and go through a whole ritual, and we did not do it enough.
“That is why they also said I got sick, because I was a … foreigner. I was white; I was not Mayan.”
Smith’s command of languages is impressive. He has expertise in ancient and modern Greek, Spanish, Maya Yuchatek, and Cholan.
“I probably have a 500-word vocabulary of Sanskrit and vocabularies in many endo-European languages. And Hawaiian: I probably have a 400-word vocabulary. I don’t claim to speak it. Spanish was my first language. Greek is my favorite.”
Smith always seems to return to his core beliefs with enthusiasm.
“My goal in terms of applied archaeology/anthropology is to reveal the glorious past of every culture and to cause respect to come to that, no matter how humble the culture,” he says.
“For instance: Hawaii the Heiau, the old temples – they are just piles of lava rock. Some people would say that we need to build a hotel here, so let’s just bulldoze that. Oh no; that needs to be protected.
“Every culture deserves to have its history and pre-history protected: people, architecture, sacred sites, places, all this.”
Despite all of his travels, all of his expertise, his focus now remains on Mexico.
“My emphasis around here is México, revealing the glorious past of México, which many people do not realize,” he says.
Class is minutes away now, and the students begin to file in and take their seats, anxious to absorb Smith’s passion and discover the jewels of the past that he will reveal to them on this day.
Smith’s exuberance and passion for the past, cultures, and people enthralls his students, which in turn continues to draw them back.
Leaton said, “He is driven by love: love of mankind, thirst of knowledge, love of what he does. He literally loves learning and teaching the cultural aspects of anthropology from the beginning to the end.”
Strange said, “People retake his class, even after passing, paying just to be around him. He is so enthusiastic, knowledgeable, passionate, caring, direct, and professional. He is quite a person, quite a teacher.
“At times it’s almost as if you have to hold up a sign saying, TIME. He is so passionate, wanting to give you your exact minute’s worth. You basically have to stop him.”