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Lacey Baldwin Smith, a 'Big Name Historian', Dies at 90

A ‘brilliant historian, a captivating teacher, an astute and gentle colleague’

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September 24, 2013 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Lacey Baldwin Smith, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, died at home in Greensboro, Vt., on Sept. 8. He was 90 years old. 

Smith, who was named Peter B. Ritzma Professor in the Humanities in 1985, retired from Northwestern in 1993 but continued his relationship with the university through guest-professor positions.

Smith was a Guggenheim fellow, twice a Fulbright recipient, and twice recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities award. He was considered one of the “big name” historians, yet his writing was considered to be as entertaining as it was erudite.

Each year Northwestern’s history department recognizes two outstanding graduate student teachers with the Lacey Baldwin Smith Prize for Teaching Excellence given to the most outstanding seminar leader and the most outstanding discussion section leader. 

“Lacey was a brilliant historian, a captivating teacher, an astute and gentle colleague, and a calm and wise citizen of the university,” said Peter Hayes, professor of history and German, the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies and chair of the history department at Northwestern. 

“He combined great historical insight with uncommon talent as a prose stylist. These intertwined gifts made listening to his lectures as delightful for Northwestern students and several generations of participants in the Alumnae Continuing Education series as reading his books was to thousands of people not fortunate enough to live in or near Evanston,” Hayes said.

From scholarly tomes to “English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable,” Smith was a consummate author, and after 60 years of writing, the majority of his books remain in print. The biography, “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty,” is one of the most referenced books concerning that famous and willful king.

Smith joined the Northwestern faculty in 1955 as an associate professor of history and by 1962 was a full professor. He served as chair of the department twice (1971-1972; 1974-1977), as well as director of the humanities program (1983-1985).

While a historian of the distant past, in his own life, Smith was not a man to look backwards or rest on the laurels of his youth, and so, at the age of 89, he penned “Anne Boleyn: The Queen of Controversy” (Amberley Publishing, 2013).

Then, 70 years after having attempted a novel during World War II in a military tent in India, Smith again turned his hand to what he considered the hardest form. He completed his first work of historical fiction and sent it to the publishers days before his health began failing. Although Smith’s writings often focused on the cut-throat and treacherous world of Tudor and Stuart monarchs, he is remembered as a gentle and gracious man.

While he loved to talk history, Smith was equally happy to read mystery stories, play poker or watch his 3-year-old grandson run circles around him, said his daughter Dennison Smith.

Having retired to Greensboro, Vt., the small village where he spent every summer of his life, he was a champion of the Greensboro Library, the Greensboro Historical Society and the Greensboro Land Trust. In the wider community, he served on the board of the American Historical Association, the American Historical Review, the Conference on British Studies and as editor of the Journal of Modern History.

As devoted a teacher as he was a writer, he rarely forgot a student’s name. One of his last actions before his death was to write to a former undergraduate, whom he hadn’t seen in decades but who had contacted him regarding his most recent book.

“His election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences -- along with the honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Bowdoin College -- attested to his scholarly renown,” Hayes said. “His consistently high enrollments and the careers of his graduate students attested to his lasting impact on undergraduates at Northwestern and elsewhere.”

The devotion he showed his students was only rivaled by that he showed his wife and children. He is preceded in death by his wife of 43 years, Jean Reeder Smith, and is survived by his son, MacAllister Smith, his daughters, Dennison Smith and Katherine Chandler Smith-Brannon, his grandsons, Chandler Smith and Steven Brannon, and his granddaughter, Oceana Masterman-Smith.

A funeral and memorial will be held in Greensboro, Vt., next July when Smith’s many friends and relatives return to the lake for the summer. The family requests that in lieu of cards or flowers, donations be made in his name to the Greensboro Land Trust.

Topics: People