Smith retires after 16 years in Advising Office

Many people have worked for the Department of Communication throughout the years. Seasons change, people leave, and new hires come in. But Diana Smith, our program coordinator, has been a constant presence in our halls for the past 16 years. Unfortunately for us, a big change is coming. Smith will be turning in her keys and retiring at the end of summer.

Diana SmithWhat have we really learned about Smith during her time with us? From our perspective, she’s the “mother hen” for our undergrads, as Chair David Domke put it. She’s the first face they see when they walk into the Advising Office — the one who sends out the notification emails to students, making sure they’ve registered for courses or applied for graduation.  But her life, of course, extends beyond these old walls, and she has many passions.

Smith originally came to the UW as a student, straight out of Highline Community College where she studied art and writing. She began her studies in art, but then switched to English Literature. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1972, and continued on to earn her master’s in higher education in 1976. But it wasn’t all schoolwork and tests for Smith.

Ever since she was a child, Smith has been a talented dancer, following in the footsteps of her mother who was a Vaudeville dancer on the Pantages circuit in the 1930s. She’s skilled in ballet, flamenco, ballroom and tap. In 1974, Smith began taking a drama class in the ASUW Experimental College. Once her teacher, Jack Wolcott, found out she was a tap dancer, he persuaded her to teach tap in the College.

“For the first couple quarters I didn’t abide by the rules at all,” Smith said. At first, she didn’t officially register the course. Instead, “I put up a sign that said ‘Tap Dancing Class’ and said what time and what to pay me. I got ten to 12 students, and then finally I thought I should do it officially through the Experimental College.”

After her daughter, Liz, was born in 1978, Smith began teaching her to dance as soon as she could. Eventually, Smith, her mother, father and Liz would perform as a three-generational tap dancing group, dancing together for charity groups around town. They also had been known to delight audiences on cruise talent shows. “Mom would pack an entire suitcase of nothing but costumes in addition to all the other normal things you take,” she said. Smith still teaches Beginning Tap Dancing for the Experimental College at the Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center.

Art has also been one of Smith’s biggest passions, with her home filled to the brim with her own, and others’, paintings. “I just always had an affinity for art. As a kid I was drawing all the time.” Smith uses the brightest of colors in her art, and has gone through different phases over time. She once focused on dots, or pointillism; she’s experimented with painting microscopic images; and today she has a few of her pieces in the Mandala style on display in the UW Hall Health lobby.

But, if there’s one thing that defines Smith, it’s her compassion for animals. “I love every animal on earth – except for maybe fleas and mosquitos,” she said.

From 1976-78 Smith got paid to put her love for animals to good use by working as a social observer in the UW Infant Primate Center.  Although Smith is against animal testing, she said, “I loved my job because I didn’t have to hurt them. I could be as kind as I could possibly be to them and give them as good a life as I could while I was there.”

Smith’s job was to do social testing, watching the monkeys as they interacted with one another. But what Smith most enjoyed about her job was the love she received from the monkeys themselves. “Every morning I would walk in and all the babies would ‘Oooh, oooh, oooh, she’s here!’ and I’d take them out and they’d kiss me, they’d groom me, they’d climb all over me.”

Smith made a special connection with a little rhesus monkey named Y90, the kind of name given to all the monkeys for tracking purposes. Y90 was being studied because she was born with a cleft palate, and the scientists wanted to breed her to see if it would pass genetically. “I don’t think it does, but if that kept her alive then good, because it saved her life. She’d sit on my arm and groom me and kiss me. I would have stolen her if I thought I could have gotten away with it.”

Today, Smith volunteers for Hope for Horses, a nonprofit welfare organization that rescues abused, abandoned and neglected equines. “Some come in in really bad shape and they’re pretty scared of people because they’ve been beaten up or haven’t been fed. We treat them very kindly, get their health back, and adopt them out if they’re adoptable,” she said. As a longtime lover of horses, Smith is happy to volunteer for an organization that takes care of animals that so badly need it.

But when Smith is not practicing her moves, painting, or caring for animals, she is most likely planning her next vacation. “I spend more money on traveling than anything else. That’s why my house is falling apart!” Right after high school she took part in a student tour in Europe with an organization called People to People. That initial overseas experience is what has fueled her hunger for travel ever since.

Two months after her daughter was born, Smith and her husband moved to England for one year. When Liz turned 8, they returned to England so she could see where she spent her first year. Since then, Smith has traveled far and wide, to Europe and the British Isles (where her daughter attended the University of St. Andrews); then to the Galapagos Islands, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Turkey and Egypt.

Her passport stamps are already enough to make anyone jealous, but this summer Smith has already spent more time overseas, with one week in Sicily, and another in London. Her roof may have to wait a little while longer to be replaced, but she wouldn’t change anything about her investments in travel. One day, she hopes to be able to visit the places that have, so far, stayed beyond her reach. She would love to someday experience a safari in Africa, a visit to Madagascar, and see the sights in New Guinea.

But before she takes off on her next trip, Smith still has a bit of time left in the Department. There are some things she won’t miss about her job, like the hectic times and the beginning-of-the-quarter chaos. “The phone’s ringing, David’s talking to me, someone else is coming in, the students are there, and there’s something on email that immediately needs to be done,” she said. “That’s going to be hard for whoever takes over for me.”

But it will be the students and colleagues that she will miss once she retires. “I like working with the students. It’s cool to see them come in and mature, and grow up and then go out and join the real world. It’s really good to know that I’m helping somebody do something good.” Smith remembers former Communication undergrads Will Mari, Karen Gaudette and Sarah Jeglum as those who stood out among the crowd. “They were really top-notch students.”

Mari said, “For as long as I can remember being at the UW (and in grad school), Diana has always been a steady, cheerful encourager; a wonderful resource; and, most importantly, my friend.”

One of the biggest changes for Smith will be no longer seeing her office mate, David Sherman, on a daily basis. “I like working with David,” she said. “He’s a really good boss, a good person to work for, and really understanding.” For the past 16 years, Sherman has helped Smith through some of the biggest challenges and been there for the triumphs in her life. “David is a blessing. He’s been a support system,” Smith said.

Now, less than a month from the start of the 2012-13 school year, Smith has begun to pack up her station. Although it may be a tough transition for all of us here in the Department, Smith is looking forward to all the time that she’ll have available to spend on the things that make her who she truly is: an artist, a dancer, an animal lover, a family woman, and a world traveler. Perhaps she’ll soon send us a photo of her tap dancing with her daughter, with a monkey on her shoulder, while she paints the wild landscape of the Serengeti.

Congratulations, Diana. We will miss you!