Smith ready for retirement after 43 years

April 16, 2012

PLAINVIEW -- Christa Smith easily pointed out that her twin sister will turn 80 later this year. Her quaint, second-floor office in Gates Hall is very neat, very structured, very  … German. It has no doubt been that way for more than four decades. But Smith’s 43-year run in Wayland’s School of Languages and Literature is coming to an end. When students descend upon campus next fall, that office will belong to someone else. A teacher of English, French and German, Smith is officially retiring at the end of the semester.

Smith grew up in war-torn Germany during World War II, a far cry from West Texas. Born in Vietz, Poland, which was part of Germany prior to WWII, in 1932, Smith faced her fair share of trials as a child. Her mother died when she was 8 and her father, a German soldier, went “mysteriously missing,” according to the German government. Smith and her three sisters remained together until the ravages of war separated Ilse, the oldest, when the younger three were forced to leave home by Polish soldiers. Ilse wasn’t at home that day. Smith, her twin and younger sister, ended up in a Christian orphanage and were miraculously reunited with Ilse when one of the sisters saw an ad in a newspaper.

“I believe it was a miracle,” Smith later wrote in one of her many essays on “Life in Germany in WWII.”

That was one of many instances the English professor can point to where God’s leading had a direct impact on her life. After all, how does a girl raised in Germany end up in West Texas?

“I ended up the wife of Don Smith,” she said.

In the mid-1950s Christa was working as an interpreter/translator in Augsburg, Germany, and teaching Sunday School with an American friend at a local church. Don landed in Augsburg while serving in the military as a paratrooper, and according to Christa, one of the first things he did was go to church. Don was introduced, along with several other service men, in church one Sunday, and Smith wasn’t all that impressed.

“He was red-headed and his ears were big,” she said. “But it was the coldest winter in Germany in many, many years. He had already gone to a store and bought a coat. I thought, ‘at least he has a brain.’ Some of those soldiers were shivering in their little suits. It was just pitiful.”

As Don became more involved in the church and began working in the junior department where Christa taught Sunday School, the two became more familiar with one another. As the summer of 1956 approached, Christa asked Don for a replacement in Sunday School as she was going to miss several weeks due to vacation. Don asked if her husband was going with her. Christa responded that she wasn’t married and when she returned from vacation Don asked her out for coffee. Gradually, the couple started dating, although the red-headed German girl was still unsure about the ruddy American.

“The very first date we had, I left because he was late,” she said.

Don didn’t miss too many other opportunities, making the most of church events and any other time he could spend with Christa. Eventually, he asked her to marry him.

“When he gave me the ring, I put it in my cabinet for three weeks,” Christa said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted a poor Texas guy. I had worked my way up to interpreter/translator. I had a really good salary. I had a good future ahead of me. And Don was absolutely a poor Texas guy. But a nice guy.”

Christa spent those three weeks thinking and praying until the answer became clear. She and Don were married in January of 1958 … but even that was an ordeal.

The couple set their wedding date for Saturday, Jan. 18. However, the Department of Statistics wasn’t open on Saturday, so to make the wedding legal, the couple married on Friday in the statistics office. They then went their separate ways and met again on Saturday at the church for another wedding.

In September of 1958, Don brought home his bride who began to acclimate to her new, West Texas surroundings.

This was not Christa’s first trip to the United States. As a high school student following the war, she was selected as an exchange student and spent a year in school in Ohio. While this helped her understand American life and culture, it did not prepare her for West Texas.

Don brought Christa home to Pampa and once he was released from the Army, he moved his bride to Plainview so he could attend Wayland. Christa said the drive from Pampa to Plainview was truly enlightening.

“Canyon I thought was fascinating because the road went down a bit and there was some scenery,” she said. “When we got to Plainview, Don asked me what I thought. I said I can see farther and see less than anywhere I have ever been. … That hasn’t changed much.”

It also took time for her to get used to the wind and dust. In Early 1960 with their daughter Caren not even a year old, Christa experienced her first severe dust storm. Don knew the storm was coming and talked her into covering the furniture and trying to stop the dust from entering around the window sills. She said she couldn’t understand why.

“By the time I picked Caren up after work, I wrapped a scarf around her head,” Christa said. “I walked in the house and everything was red. Red dust. You could see where the dust came through the wall. A small house, miserable, dust everywhere. I swear I turned on the faucet and dust came out.

“I sat down and cried that I was going back to Germany.”

She didn’t, however, and she made the most of her time in West Texas despite the fact that no amount of bleach would take the tinge of dirt out of the sheets. Christa also started school at Wayland and earned her bachelor’s degree. While there, she worked in the language department, grading all the German tests and homework assignments.

Smith left Wayland with enough English, French and German credits to teach school. She even had a large number of religion hours, but she gave up her pursuit of a religion degree when Don gave up his idea of becoming a preacher to focus on teaching.

Christa taught school at Cotton Center from 1963-65. She eventually gave up teaching to pursue a master’s degree. She began commuting to classes at Texas Tech with a group that included Don Cook, Emeritus Professor of English. Cook challenged her to apply for a teaching position at Wayland. Smith didn’t apply right away, but completed graduate school in 1969 with two master’s degrees. She taught four years at Tech then came to Wayland.

From her view on the second floor, Smith has seen many changes at Wayland, some good, some not so good. Some things caused her to lose sleep and threaten her health with worry, until she learned to turn everything over to God. Wayland survived, and so did she. She was here through the tumultuous 1980s and saw the Mabee Learning Resource Center go from conception to a laughing stock and then completion. She has watched several administrations as they led Wayland through the good times and the bad.

“I think I need to write an unauthorized history of the last 40 years,” she said. “A lot of things have gone on, but it has survived.”

Through it all, however, one thing has remained – the students.

Smith said in her early years the language students were some of the best on campus. They were committed to learning the languages to further their education and future possibilities. She said the emphasis on learning foreign languages seems to have dissipated somewhat, but there is still one lesson that she tries to teach every student that comes through her classroom.

“I’m still trying to teach students that what they learn, no one can take away from them,” she said. “Learn as much as you can at a time when you can concentrate on learning.”

Smith will complete her load this spring and watch as some of her students graduate in May. She has already begun to clean out her office and to figure out what she will do with 40-plus years of teaching materials. When she closes her office door for the final time, she will join her husband of nearly 54 years in retirement. Smith said they may travel some, she may teach a few classes here and there, or she may focus on writing a book about her childhood experiences to share with her grandchildren. And although it has been an interesting ride, she said she would not trade her 43 years at Wayland.

“I stayed didn’t I?” she said. “When they asked me, I wasn’t sure. But I stayed because of my family. Don loved Wayland. My kids went to school here and they all love Wayland. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich teaching at Wayland, but I was allowed to be a teacher. I have enjoyed my years here.”