ESM Icon Bill Smith Passes


July 31st, 2012


BLACKSBURG, Va., July 31, 2012 –Professor C. W. Smith, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering Science and Mechanics and a member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence at Virginia Tech, passed away Monday, July 30.  He was a lifetime resident of Christiansburg. 

Bill Smith was the epitome of the hometown boy who made good.  Born in Christiansburg, Va., he lived in the same home his grandfather built in 1905 and where he was raised.  The 1929 stock market crash forced the sale of the home, but Smith was able to purchase the landmark building back in 1948.  He continued to live there until recently when his health failed.

While attending Virginia Tech, he garnered some experience his senior year teaching mathematics, and that landed him a job offer from Dan Pletta, the engineering mechanics department head in the 1940s. He pursued his master’s degree and became a full time instructor in 1948.  Upon receiving his graduate degree in 1950, Pletta promoted him to an assistant professor, and Smith taught five classes at a salary of some $200 a month.

“Sponsored research was unheard of at the time,” Smith said in an interview in 2006, but George Irwin changed Smith’s view of an academic’s life.   When Irwin, a member of the Lehigh University faculty and considered to be the “father of fracture mechanics,” visited Virginia Tech to deliver a seminar, Smith candidly recalled his response.  “I found his talk intriguing but I had no idea what he was talking about.  That got me interested, and I went to some short courses at MIT and at the University of Denver Research Institute” to learn more.

Subsequently, Smith became one of the first of the engineering faculty to transition from a strictly teaching role to assuming a teaching and research responsibility in the college.  Smith was one of Virginia Tech’s investigators on the 1969 Themis grant, the landmark Department of Defense program that catapulted the University into its current international stature in composite and advanced materials.
In 1977 the University recognized Smith for his many achievements, presenting him with its Alumni Award for Excellence in Research. That same year, the Society for Experimental Mechanics made him a Fellow.  In 1986 he received NASA’s Langley Research Center Scientific Achievement Award. Other honors followed including election to Fellow of the American Academy of Mechanics in 1991 and of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1996. He became an honorary member of SEM in 2002.

In Smith’s field of research, fracture mechanics, his work is known “worldwide” as are his contributions to the discipline of photoelasticity.  In recognition of his accomplishments, Smith has received numerous honors including the 1983 M. M. Frocht Award, the 1993 William M. Murray Medal, and the 1995 B.J. Lazan Award, all from the Society of Experimental Mechanics (SEM).

Smith balanced his act of teaching and research well.  In 1991, he received the statewide Dan Pletta Engineering Educator of the Year Award from the Virginia Schools of Engineering. He served as an unofficial advisor to the 15 or 20 ESM seniors each year until his retirement.   And he and his wife Doris, also deceased, would also act as chaperones at the college dances.
In 1992, Smith retired but retained his status as an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus.  He continued to come to the office, and retained his research laboratory for another ten years or so. When his lab closed, he spent his office time as the head of the ESM Honorifics Committee.

Smith directed some 50 graduate-level students, helped establish a foreign exchange program with Moscow State University, authored or co-authored more than 150 technical papers, wrote five book chapters, served as an editor for such publications as Fracture Mechanics and the Journal of Theoretical and Applied Fracture Mechanics, and received notable listings in American Men in Science, Who’s Who in Engineering, and Who’ Who in Frontiers of Science and Technology.

He was known fondly as the ESM Department’s “Chaplain.” There was also a time when, as the oldest person in the department, he was recruited to form a committee to help solve technical disagreements between faculty members.

The celebration of life for Bill will be at St. Paul's United Methodist Church at 10 a.m. on Saturday August 4, 2012, followed by a brief graveside ceremony in Sunset Cemetery in Christiansburg. The family will be available at the church to greet at 9 a.m. prior to the service.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to either, Professor C. William and Doris Smith Scholarship at Virginia Tech Foundation, 902 Prices Fork Road, Suite 4500, Blacksburg, VA 24060, or St. Paul's United Methodist Church 220 West Main Street, Christiansburg, VA 24073.

The family would like to extend deep appreciation to all the wonderful friends that contributed to Bill's ongoing joy for life. A special thank you to the caring staff at Kroonje that provided comfort and care during Bill's last days.