Before I start, I want to take a moment to talk about how Ken Smith has affected me and pushed me in the right direction. I came to UW as a freshman being undeclared and unsure what I wanted to do with my life. I had loved photography but never really believed in myself, or saw it as a possible career plan.
I took Smith’s class, Intro to Photography, my second semester of my freshman year. During the class I built up this aggression towards Smith, my images were not getting very high reviews and quite frankly I became frustrated with the class and him. Looking back on it now, I realize he was trying to push me, to force me to do my best and look at photography in a different light.
When he asked me to be one his TAs for photography class the next semester, I cried. He had believed in me and since then he has been my inspiration and my mentor. At the end of class in the following years I declared a major in communication and a minor in photography. I pushed myself and believed in myself, not letting anything stand in my way. I cannot give Smith all the credit, as there were other people who inspired me.
However, Smith gave me the courage to peruse something I loved. These past two years I have worked with him as his TA, and he became the advisor for the Photography Club that I co-founded last spring. He has also written me a letter of recommendation for a photography job that I got for this next summer. Watching one of my favorite professors retire, I will shed some tears as I prepare for my final year of college.
With all these thoughts in mind I was privileged to sit down and have an interview with Smith, professor and internship coordinator in the Department of Communication & Journalism.
Smith started his photographic career by taking a picture under a bull, the highest priced bull in history in the 1960s. Ever since that moment he fell in love with photography.
“I was under the bull taking a picture for the insurance company, and from that moment on, I was hooked on photography,” Smith said. “[Laughing] But I find it interesting because that was the first picture I ever took.”
From there he moved on to an advertising job at the Green River Star, which was his first job in journalism. Within two years he was promoted to publisher for the Star and worked there for eight years.
Even though Smith said he loved his job at the Green River Star he never felt completely satisfied. After continuing to job search, he realized his true passion was in academia. He went on to get his doctorate from Utah, specializing in media economics and visual communication. Smith then came to Wyoming. The beautiful scenery and the Rocky Mountain West kept him here and happy for the last 26 years.
“UW has been a big part of that. It’s been a continuation of my life in Wyoming,” Smith said. “I’ve always loved Wyoming and I’ve always loved my life here. I like Wyoming, I like Wyoming values.”
Smith came to the university in 1991 and became the department head in the COJO department in 2001; he was the department head for 15 years.
It was with the title of department head that Smith felt like he accomplished a lot at UW. He was able to assist with the hiring of good faculty members and helped build up a department with one of the largest sets of majors, having one of the largest possible credit hours and allowing for a large graduate program.
“I am very happy with the faculty I’ve been able to work with over the years,” Smith said. “I think they have accomplished great things and I think that the department I helped to build is extremely relevant to UW.”
Other great accomplishments that Smith values is the work he got to do with external constituencies. This includes working with the members of the press in Wyoming and his work on the Association Board of Directors. He has also worked with the alumni, through the A&S board of Visitors, Alumni Advisory Committee.
Smith has taught a variety classes in the COJO department, most pertaining to advertising, graphics and photography. However, as much as he loved teaching those subjects, Mass Communication Law was his favorite class to teach at UW. He taught it once and explains that it was not his area of expertise and he was apprehensive about teaching it at first.
“When I was assigned law, I thought, ‘What am I going to do, I have no background in it or anything, other than being a publisher,’” Smith said.
Smith based the curriculum of the class on a guest speaker for one of his other courses, Bruce Moats. This class was set up as more discussion based and the students talked about six or seven cases a day, discussing the possible outcomes to the cases.
“At the end of the class each student had to bring in their own case and other students had to evaluate it and make a ruling on it. I was more impressed with what they did, than what I did,” Smith said. “One of the other reasons that I am sad to be leaving is because well, I could have used their cases the next time I teach this class.”
Smith said he did love teaching photography but it just was not the same as going into a class that intimidated him from the beginning.
It is his students that inspire Smith the most and account for some of his greatest moments as a professor.
“Be careful what you accomplish because your professors are going to take credit for it,” Smith said. “I am very happy with the accomplishments of many of my students. There are so many people that I’ve had in my classes that I am proud of, and I am proud of what they’re doing now.”
As Smith is preparing for retirement he said he had three points of advice for faculty and students.
One, balance your lives. He wishes everyone to take responsibility for his or her actions but to find the balance between serious and fun.
“I think the biggest failure I’ve seen is those who don’t have their priorities in order, they have too much fun,” Smith said. “But then there’s others who don’t have any fun and I think that’s almost as bad. [Laughing].”
Two, look for new opportunities and recognize when they come.
“That’s what I’ve always done, I’ve always tried to be opportunistic, I think a lot of people would be afraid to go back to graduate school after a successful career, but I did it and I’ve never regretted doing it,” Smith said.
The last one is to not be afraid to take chances, to break through and innovate.
“If you know that an opportunity feels right, don’t hesitate to take it,” Smith said.
Smith said he is looking forward to being able to spend extended amounts of time with his wife and family in Illinois after he retires. However, no matter where he lives he will always make it a priority to come back and stay active in Wyoming. He plans to stay involved in the Press Association, allowing him to come back to the state often.
“I am very happy with the career I’ve had and the people I’ve been able to work with, I really wasn’t ready to retire,” Smith said.