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An Interview with Ray Smith
Forty years after the fact, it's time to set the record straight about Ray Smith, "the one who tore down Hubbell Hall." Give the guy a break, already. It wasn't his fault.
Through the decades, prosecutorial fingers have pointed at Michigan Tech's charismatic, controversial former president, who led construction of Tech's modern campus in the 1960s and 1970s and presided over the demolition of buildings dating from the nineteenth century. The sentimental favorite was Hubbell Hall, a stately, copper-roofed, condemned edifice of Jacobsville sandstone that was the closest thing Michigan Tech has ever had to an Old Main. Built in 1888, it fell to the wrecking ball in 1968.
Smith has come to the 2006 Alumni Reunion to be named an honorary alumnus, and from the sunny kitchen of a friend's guest cottage in Chassell, he offers up his side of the story.
Smith's predecessor, Michigan Tech President J. Robert Van Pelt, had crafted a plan to renovate Hubbell Hall. In 1965, when Smith was promoted from his post as head of the metallurgy department to president, he took that plan to Lansing. Hat in hand, he presented it to the legislature.
"They wouldn't fund it," he recalls. No one wanted to put money into old buildings. Next, he turned to alumni, but the effort was unsuccessful, in part because the Michigan Tech Fund wasn't yet in existence.
Smith went to the alumni well again, this time to reconstruct, stone by stone, Hubbell Hall's distinctive tower after the building was razed. "I couldn't even raise the money it would take to do that," he says, his voice edged with frustration. "But I sure received some hell years later."
Many years later.
After his retirement in 1979, Smith was introduced to the wife of a faculty member. "I know you," she said, as she wheeled away from him. "You're the one who tore down Hubbell Hall."
Hubbell Hall, lovely as it may have been, was a secondary matter for Smith. His first priority was a campus coming apart at the seams.
"The infrastructure needed renovation," says Smith. "Marie Curie could have walked into the X-ray room in metallurgy and been right at home."
So, in 1965, his first year as president, Smith led the development of the University's first campus plan and brought it before the state legislature's Joint Capital Outlay Committee. "We told them, 'This is our plan,' so they'd know what we would be coming back for," he says.
Come back they did. Among the buildings constructed during Smith's presidency were Chemical Sciences and Engineering, the Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics Building (now named in his honor), and the (now MacInnes) Student Ice Arena. Next were the Electrical Energy Resources Center, the Student Development Complex, the Forestry Building, the Wadsworth Hall addition, Co-ed Hall (now McNair), the Administration Building, and Upper Daniell Heights.
Getting money for every structure was a struggle because Tech was competing with all of the state's other public universities. And on his first trip to Lansing, Smith learned just how tough it could be. The state budget director told him flatly that one of his objectives from then-Governor George Romney was to close Michigan Tech.
"He'd seen this tiny school up in Houghton, and we had three big engineering schools downstate, and mining was on its way out," Smith says. "I wasn't upset; I knew then why the Board of Control had hired me, and this was just another hurdle."
Smith had reason to be unconcerned. "The UP Mafia"—State Senator Joe Mack of Ironwood and State Representatives Russell (Rusty) Hellman of Dollar Bay and Dominic Jacobetti of Negaunee—were rising to the top of the power pyramid in Lansing. And they were famous for taking care of their own.
"The legislature was good to the University," Smith remembers. "We had tremendous help from the UP legislators, especially Joe Mack. But I was concerned about the UP Mafia, because when they went out of power, I was afraid that the rest of the legislature would attempt to get even with us."
Having all its eggs in the state's basket put Michigan Tech in a precarious position, so it became imperative to broaden the University's financial base, Smith said. The first step was to establish a fund-raising entity. With the strong support of the Board of Control, and under the leadership of Board Member Martin Caserio, the Michigan Tech Fund became a reality in 1966. The second step was to promote research.
"In 1960, the total non-state-funded research at Tech was $3,000," Smith recalls. As head of metallurgy, he immediately began raising research funds, first for his department and then, as coordinator of research, for the University.
Smith's support for research was not universally applauded, but he stands by his decision. "The faculty criticized me because I emphasized research," he remembers. "But I also valued teaching. Without that, you're not a university; you're just a technical institute. You need to teach and do research.
"We never went for an engineering building without going for a huge amount of equipment, too," Smith adds. "Part of a Michigan Tech education is that hands-on experience, and we didn't abandon it."
On Smith's watch, Michigan Tech's enrollment more than doubled and the campus infrastructure leapt forward nearly a century. But the best thing he brought to the University was good people, he says. "My greatest skill was putting together a top team," says Smith. "We really worked well together. For all the years I was here, I didn't have a defection. It was damned good."
As for what he took away from Tech, Smith says there are too many things to enumerate, but he lists "more patience" and a deep respect for the legislators of that time. "I sure changed my opinion of them," he says. "They were incredibly hard-working."
My Board was superb," he adds. "But the thing I liked best was the students. They were hard-working, highly dedicated, and very challenging."
The one thing he doesn't miss is fund-raising, perhaps a holdover from the unhappy Hubbell Hall affair. "I swore when I left this job, I'd never ask anybody for money again," Smith says with a smile. "And I haven't."
© 2006, Michigan Tech Magazine
Michigan Tech Magazine | Fall 2006 | http://www.mtu.edu/