by Valerie Kimble
Valerie (Smallridge) Kimble (’01, B.S., Technical Communication) is a Socorro native who works for the NMT Office for Academic Affairs.
SOCORRO, N.M., July 7, 2006 -- Sallie Smith came into this interview with a theme she had established in advance: how a chance meeting can lead to romance and marriage; and how marriage plays a leading role in the fate of joined lives – including bringing people to Socorro.
Sallie has jotted down notes – she comes prepared for any interview, any social gathering – black cursive writing on a small pad reflecting answers to questions she asked by telephone.
Well, let’s see: John Wilson, the eminent New Mexico Tech hydrologist and his wife, Betty, met when Wilson was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, and co-eds from a nearby girls’ college were bused over for what was then called a “picnic weekend.”
Anton Budding, professor emeritus of geology, and his wife, Anita, moved to Socorro when Anton answered an advertisement in GeoTimes for a faculty member at the then-New Mexico School of Mines.
The Buddings’ two daughters graduated from Socorro High School; and the elder Buddings stayed in town until both had retired – Anita from teaching in the public schools, and Anton from teaching at Tech.
It turns out that Anton was recruited by Sallie’s husband, Clay T. Smith, one of only two faculty with the school’s fledgling Geology Department. Today, the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department has the largest faculty base at the university.
Smith, once dubbed the Dick Clark of geologists for his youthful mien, and one of Tech’s best known and revered faculty members, died suddenly three years ago at age 87.
And now, Sallie is leaving Socorro to return to southern Pasadena, Calif. to live near her two sons and their families, and an older sister, Catherine, Sallie’s only sibling. She’ll be two blocks from the Wrigley Mansion, now the headquarters for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade.
It was a good time to visit and talk about her life.
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Sarah Gwendolyn Austin was born in Bay City, Mich., where her father had prospered in his business sufficiently to do what men in that part of the country have been doing for generations: he set his sights for the West.
Fate intervened in the form of a measles virus her father contracted. The illness postponed his own move, while his partner went on ahead. In time the Austins followed, but the delay had cost Sallie’s father his seniority.
John David Austin, however, was a born salesman, and soon was a successful insurance counselor for the various forms of coverage sold at the time.
Smith, meanwhile, was born in Omaha, Neb., and moved to southern California as a young child. He was intelligent and very athletic, but didn’t play sports until high school, because he had to work after school.
Sallie remembers her husband’s lectures to their sons about how he sold magazines on a bicycle to make spending money. Later, it came to pass that while the young Smith did have such a route, the job did not last as long as one might have expected from the tone of his story.
The story of When Clay Met Sallie has already been well documented, but begs to be repeated here. He was a student at California Institute of Technology, or Caltech; she was a co-ed at nearby Occidental College.
It was tradition that Occidental girls dated Caltech boys.
The two were on a triple date, with other partners, and Sallie remembered Smith’s date as “a real charming little girl” she tried to recruit into her own sorority at Occidental. Caltech had no fraternities, only “houses” where a student could take a date to dinner.
One evening, the trio of couples piggybacked to a spring football game on the Caltech campus, where Smith so severely criticized every play, that at one point Sallie burst:
“If you’re so good, why aren’t you out there playing?” she asked Smith. He turned to her coolly. “Madam, I wish I were,” he replied. In fact, Smith was the team’s starting quarterback, but was also on the track team, whose coach was saving him for the Drake relays the following day.
Miss Austin was accustomed to the company of star athletes, a genre she had dated since high school. Smith, it would seem, was unaccustomed to brash comments from attractive young women impervious to his athletic prowess, and was intrigued.
He called the next day for a date – to the beach (“and me with no bosom, and sensitive to the sun,” laughed Sallie). The two dated for several years, when Smith suggested that they marry during the summer of 1940 – the first summer he did not have to attend a geology field camp.
Sallie was working as a teacher in El Monte, Calif., where she had 104 elementary students divided between second and third grades. Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs saturated parts of California, an area also populated by migrant farm workers, which is why there were so many young children, she said.
Miss Austin gave notice to the school system, and on May 19, 1940, she and Mr. Smith married in a garden ceremony at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which boasted the longest aisle of any church in Pasadena.
The bride carried a bouquet featuring an orchid and a cascading arrangement of lily of the valley, entwined with a replica of a wedding ring. She had seven bridal attendants, only one of whom survives.
One of the bridesmaids was Sallie’s childhood friend, Clarita Heath Bright, who became a member of the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. Clarita competed in the 1936 Olympics at Garmisch and was inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1968.
A news clipping of Clarita’s Olympic achievement is included in the Smiths’ wedding memorabilia.
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It may be time to debunk a myth about Sallie Smith. She did not wear white gloves to meetings of the New Mexico Tech Dames Club. “I owned gloves, but rarely wore them,” she said.
The Dames Club, comprised of the wives of faculty and students, met monthly, and members wore insignia pins. “I still have mine,” Sallie said. At each meeting, a different department chair would give a talk, or progress report, which is how the women kept up with campus news.
She doesn’t recall who organized the group, but suspects it may have been the late Louise Treseder, a tall, redheaded woman with a reputation for being well organized.
The image of white gloves persists, but not every member of the club reflected the perceived values of the post-war American wife. Sallie recalls a member who thought her marriage to a college professor would be so wonderful; when, in fact, she pronounced it the most boring thing that had ever happened to her, and eventually left the community.
It was the visionary president, E.J. Workman, who encouraged (it was his edict, said Sallie) faculty and their families to integrate themselves within the Socorro community.
And they did. Sallie was one of the early members of the Socorro Garden Club, an organizer of the popular Christmas Idea Show each November, and did all the mom things associated with raising two boys in a small town.
During the more than 30 years Clay served as director of the state Science Fair, the Smith home was the unofficial gathering place for both the student exhibitors and their parents, particularly during the early years.
Smith was an avid golfer, and also refereed high school football and basketball games across the state. He was a dedicated official who once assessed a 15-yard penalty against his own son – which made for a lively discussion at dinner the following evening, as Sallie recalled.
Smith also was a charter member of the Socorro Lions Club, and a familiar face at club functions.
He was known as a tough teacher who didn’t give grades – students had to earn them. Smith once famously commented that if students had “free time,” they weren’t studying hard enough.
“Some students truly disliked him because he made them work so hard,” said Sallie. And yet, years after they graduated, these same students brought their families to Socorro to meet Smith, recalling their college years as the best times of their lives.
It was Workman who recruited Smith for an open faculty post in engineering (yes, engineering), but it was the people of Socorro who ensured that he accepted the job on Valentine’s Day of 1947.
Coming from the fertile fields of southern California to vegetation-challenged Socorro was a culture shock to the couple, especially Sallie, who told her husband not to bother unpacking their belongings, because they weren’t staying.
But before that day was over, Sallie had collected a bounty of dinner invitations, enough to offset any doubt that the move to Socorro was fortuitous, indeed.
And so it was that Sallie, who had waited five years after her marriage to have children, settled comfortably into her new role as faculty wife, mother, gardener and hostess.
The several-course meals of the Gourmet Club are legendary, as members took turns hosting monthly dinners, with everyone preparing a prescribed dish according to the evening’s theme.
Sallie remains an active member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and was one of the early organizers of the annual Visitas de Navidad holiday tour of homes.
She also belongs to the P.E.O. Sisterhood, and will be moving to the Margarita Gardens, a P.E.O.-affiliated apartment complex in Pasadena, once her home on Vista Drive is sold.
However, she plans to return to Socorro on Oct. 14, when the Socorro Public Library will honor Sallie on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
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We are sitting in the large entertainment room behind large windows that overlook the south end of the campus, reminiscing about bygone days and people. Once upon a time “the hill” was bustling with young families, and neighborhood potlucks were frequent.
Sallie is talking about marriage.
“When a woman gets married, her parents often silently worry, knowing that changes in her life – and his – are bound to occur. Same with sons,” she said.
She also recalled advice her own mother gave her when she married: Don’t neglect your husband amid the hubbub of raising children.
“Some different vistas open up when you get married,” said Sallie. “I wanted to be a department store buyer, and could have had a scholarship to New York, but I didn’t want to go that far away.”
Instead, she went to nearby Occidental College, where it was understood as a matter of course that Occidental girls dated Caltech boys . . .
“I hate to leave!” said Sallie. “Now there are so many good restaurants and so many artists and interesting people here.
“But I guess it’s time. It’s been a wonderful town, hasn’t it?”