History into stories
Jacksonville Review & Sentinel
For years, Larry Smith has been Jacksonville’s unofficial historian. Come September, however, he will be officially recognized by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) with the Leadership in History Award. The AASLH Awards Program recognizes excellent achievements in the collection, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history throughout North America.
Larry’s love of history began with his grandmother. “Grandmother Smith would come stay for a month to six weeks every summer. While we were stacking wood, we’d start talking about family, and she told me about a lot of family history.”
He confesses, however, that he doesn’t have a degree in history. “I’ve taken lots of classes, and I like to think myself as a community historian, but I’m really a storyteller.” Larry has spun his stories for over 40 years as an elementary school teacher, a seasonal ranger at Crater Lake, and a guide to Jacksonville’s history and geology.
“I’m not a natural teacher,” Larry admits. “It’s forced. I was so frightened by life in general–I couldn’t face people. My twin brother and I always did things together–from first grade up through college we only had one class separate from each other. And I always walked in Lloyd’s shadow.”
Larry and Lloyd both graduated in industrial engineering from LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. “By the time I finished my last year, I realized my last year, I realized it wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but I went ahead and finished my degree.” Then for the first time in their lives, Larry and Lloyd went different ways.
Larry recalls that period in the 60s. “We were all working under Kennedy’s idealism. At LeTourneau, I heard this talk by a guy from the Peace Corps. They had just started it. It sounded really interesting, like something I wanted to do. So when a Peace Corps recruiter came on campus, I got really excited and filled out the application, and they accepted me.”
He continues, “They flew me back to the University of Nebraska. It was the first time I had been around non-engineers. But along with six other people, I didn’t learn the Spanish fast enough, and I got sent home. I felt really defeated.”
Larry wound up working at Harry & David. “I had worked there one week when the news came that Kennedy had been shot. That sent my life in a new direction.”
Lloyd, who was 2,000 miles away, had decided to become a teacher. “I remembered how much I liked history,” Larry recalls. “I got straight A’s. So I marched into Churchill Hall at SOU with my transcripts and said I would like to become a high school history teacher. The advisor looked up at me and said, ‘Why? They’re a dime a dozen.’ So I signed up for elementary. I thought, ‘good, I get to teach science and other stuff.'”
When Larry was hired to teach at Jacksonville Elementary School, he describes himself as “scared spitless. I’ll never forget that first day. I’d never taught a whole day in my life, only half days. My lesson plans were used up in minutes. So then I started spinning stories about Crater Lake.” Larry had been doing seasonal work at Crater Lake for the previous five years.
“And that’s how I got into story telling. I can tell a story on just about any subject. Most of them are true stories. So I ended up with a career of 33 years of telling stories.”
Recently Larry was the commencement speaker at Ruch Elementary School. “I hadn’t been there in three years. They said we want to have a story teller come out. So I told three stories. When I got done, some of the kids came running up to me and started telling stories they remembered from three years ago.”
When Larry began teaching in Jacksonville, the town became the backdrop for his stories. “It was my teaching easel. Kids learn great in the classroom, but when you take them outside, you can paint the big picture a lot better.”
Larry learned that lesson from Dr. Hollenbeck, his mentor at SOU. “She loved field trips. I remember her giving the example of teachers bringing leaves into a classroom and saying this is an oak tree. She then shouted, ‘The tree is outside! Take them outside and let them look at the tree!'”
These outside classrooms have inspired Larry’s own efforts to preserve both place and history. In 1982, he co-authored “Crater Lake, Story Behind the Scenery,” and he and brother Lloyd continue to compile a chronological history of the park itself. Larry still works periodically as an interpretive ranger at Crater Lake National Park, teaching families about the natural and human history of the area.
A founding member of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association in 1989 and currently its Executive Director, Larry works to preserve and interpret this once-neglected part of the town’s cultural landscape. Over the years he has worked with groups ranging from Cub Scouts to the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and city, state, and federal agencies to bring local history to both residents and summer tourists.
Along the way, Larry researched and wrote Rich Gulch, a book for young readers based on trailside historical displays of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association. He has also produced a children’s activity book about the Jacksonville Cemetery.
Larry has been recognized for many of these efforts. He has been nominated as Oregon’s Teacher of the Year, and has received Amway Corporation’s National “Class Act” Environmental Education Award, the Medford School District’s “Service to Education Award,” and Kiwanis International’s “Everyday Hero Award.” He’s even had his own days. September 12, 1999, was officially declared “Larry Smith Day” in Jacksonville.
Larry appreciates this latest recognition, but has no intention of resting on his laurels. “I want people to realize that our historic fabric is in danger of falling apart. We need to be constantly aware of this. Having been here for 40 years, I’v seen a lot of things slip away. We need to preserve our history–to wrap our arms around it and guard it judiciously.”