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The Doctor Is (Still) In

Welcome to the world of Dr. Howard Smith '42. Ever since his early years at Keene Teachers College, he has shown the world what an education coupled with a sense of mission can accomplish.

by Mark Reynolds

More than a few people consider Keene State a "people's college" – a place where students without great wealth or means can come to get a good start in life. Take Dr. Howard W. Smith, for example.

Dr. Smith – just "Howard" then – came to Keene in 1938 from the family farm in Brunswick, Vermont, a town with 35 voters (and hardly more than that now). He'd looked at Dartmouth and UVM, but, with just $283 in his pocket, Keene was the only school he could afford. His uncle drove him down, dropped him off, and said, "Good luck!" The young man immediately got a job at Goodnow Foods Inc. on Main Street and registered for classes. Tuition, he recalls, was $52 per year.

Dr. Howard W. Smith photo

Dr. Smith at home in Lake Placid.

Howard knew that the harsh life of a farmer in northern Vermont was not for him, and he dreamed of going into medicine. But he'd learned that, whereas medical school required four years of college, dental school only required three. With his limited resources, that seemed like a more achievable goal. So he set his eye on the prize, did well in his classes, and worked hard at the grocery store. He also joined Alpha Pi Tau and lived at the frat house on Main Street. He claimed, "The athletic fraternity needed a few academics to balance out the jocks."

One summer day, a woman came into the grocery store and asked Howard if he would buy a load of fruits and vegetables from her. She was from Boston, but had a summer home on a small farm in Sullivan, and was trying to teach her children to earn money by their own labor. Howard bought her produce, and evidently impressed her enough that she asked him about his goals. He told her about his three-year plan to get into dental school; she listened, and went off in her station wagon.

A year or so later, after he'd put in his three years of undergraduate work, that same woman pulled up at the store, found Howard, and said, "Get your things, I'm here to take you to Boston." And away he went.

The woman turned out to be the wife of Dr. Richard Sweet, a highly respected surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Sweets took the young man into their home, where he lived for his first two years of dental school at Tufts. Howard also impressed Dr. Sweet, who helped him with his toughest subjects, such as biochemistry. One day, Howard mentioned that he thought he should get an MD degree to go along with his dental training. The doctor said, "You need some oral surgery first," and used his clout to get Howard enrolled in the oral surgery program at Mass General. At that time, only Harvard grads could get into the medical program there, but Dr. Sweet simply went to the chief of oral surgery and told him, "Smith is coming here next year."

Howard finished his requirements for dental school early and went down to New Haven Hospital in Connecticut for some extra training in oral surgery. This was during World War II, when there was a real shortage of dentists, so he began seeing dental patients at night, free of charge, since he did not yet have a license. Pretty soon, he had staff members from the hospital and Yale Medical School coming in for care. One of those people, he recalled, was the wife of the dean of the medical school. "I asked her for an application to med school. The next time she came in, she brought me one. I filled it out, and she took it back to her husband. And I was admitted."

Dr. Howard W. Smith and his boat, Bobolink photo

Dr. Smith with his meticulously restored pride-and-joy Bobolink.

When he matriculated at Yale, this independent and resourceful young man saw yet another opportunity: "I found that my first two years of medicine at Tufts were more demanding instruction than what was expected of me at Yale, so I set up my own dental practice, and all the people I'd taken care of there became my patients. I practiced almost full-time dentistry while I was going to medical school." He made enough money to buy the building his office was in.

During his fourth year of med school, Howard married one of his classmates, Ora Kingsley, soon to become Dr. Ora Kingsley Smith. About that time, he also got a visit from General Wilfred Hall, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, and head of the medical facilities of the Military Air Transport Service out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. General Hall oversaw 21 hospitals scattered around the world and, consequently, traveled often. He needed someone to take care of his patients while he was away, so he recruited the newly minted Dr. Howard Smith to come to Washington, DC, and work for him. Shortly after that, Gen. Hall was appointed as chief medical officer for NATO. "So he turned all of his patients over to me, which included several Pentagon people and other military brass," Dr. Smith said. "I inherited his practice, but I didn't get his rank."

Dr. Howard W. Smith at his Honduran Medical Institute photo

Dr. Smith (at left) with Honduran doctors and hospital administrators at his Honduran Medical Institute in Tegucigalpa. Smith travels to Honduras every three months to train surgeons in maxillofacial and corrective surgery.

When Dr. Smith got out of the service, he went back to Yale for one more year of residency training, "which was nothing, because I'd been operating on 25 patients a week at Andrews," he recalled. "Afterward, I opened an office and applied for my boards as an ear, nose, and throat specialist."

An Offer Yale Couldn't Refuse

Yale Medical School asked him to teach on its faculty and offered him a salary somewhere in the range of $5,000, which was low, but the going rate at the time. Dr. Smith realized that he was in a position to start returning some of the good favor that had come his way in life, so he replied that he would instead donate $5,000 each year to the department and teach for free. As he said, "It was an offer they couldn't refuse."

As Dr. Smith continued to practice, he realized that he needed soft-tissue training (plastic surgery) to round out his expertise as a dental surgeon and ENT specialist. He spent portions of several years at a clinic in Oxford, England, devoted to caring for children with facial deformities. He expanded his practice at home, established several offices around Connecticut, and started a Yale-related satellite program, specializing in ENT and head and neck surgery at the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven.

Paying It Forward

In 1979, when Dr. Smith turned 60, he decided he would retire when he turned 70, "because I saw a lot of people who were 70 and shouldn't still be practicing, and I didn't want to be one of them." When 70 came, he left his thriving practice and his full professorship at the Yale University School of Medicine. His wife wanted to move to New York City, so that's where they went.

But Dr. Smith was no ordinary 70-year-old. It wasn't long before he was back in front of the classroom, this time as a full professor at Columbia University School of Medicine – pro bono, of course. He also saw other ways in which he could share his special skills and expertise. Honduras has one of the highest rates of cleft lip and cleft palate in the world, so in 1995, Dr. Smith set up a foundation called the Honduran Medical Institute in Tegucigalpa. Even now, at age 92, he travels there four times a year to train Honduran surgical residents in the correction of facial deformities and other head and neck abnormalities, as well as maxillofacial surgery.

The Honduran Medical Institute has graduated 10 native specialty surgeons so far. On each of Dr. Smith's four annual visits, his team sees 75 to 100 children, from which they select 25 or 30 for surgery each week. "We are training Honduran surgeons to treat their own congenitally deformed children," Dr. Smith said. "A fair guess is that our program performs operations on 350 patients with facial defects a year, plus an equal number in other specialty visits. All pro bono!"

Ora Smith's family had a long association with Lake Placid, New York, and the couple began spending time in that beautiful spot in the Adirondacks. In 1980, Dr. Smith was appointed the chair of the Alpine Medical Committee for the Winter Olympics there. The Smiths became so enamored with the area that they began acquiring land. Their holdings now include several buildings and 400 acres of land around the lake. One of those properties includes Camp Carolina, an 18-room Adirondack Great Camp, built in 1913. In 2010, the Adirondack Architectural Heritage recognized the Smiths for their preservation of this magnificent and historic camp.

His properties in Lake Placid have given Dr. Smith the perfect space to pursue some of his other interests. He's got well-appointed machine and woodworking shops, where he restores and builds fine furniture and works on the dozen or so vintage wooden motorboats he owns. Several of his own oil paintings hang on the camp walls. He employs a full-time caretaker for his property. The caretaker came with some woodworking skills, but Dr. Smith has also trained him to be a decent machinist, helping in the boat restorations.

Training med students, Honduran surgeons, and machinists – the good doctor seems born to acquire knowledge and impart it to others. "All knowledge is not in textbooks or journals," he pointed out. "Most of a profession's technical skills come from outstanding teachers, and the expectation is that the student must repay the favor – not to that teacher, but to some future student. I experienced that at Keene early on in my career. Several teachers gave me exceptional courage to pursue a life in education, not only for myself but for others."

Though Howard Smith came to what was then Keene Teachers College just to get the three years he needed for dental school, the College's motto, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve," was not lost on him. "Though I never intended to teach when I went to Keene," he noted, "I ended up teaching longer than most anyone who ever went there."

"Most of a profession's technical skills come from outstanding teachers, and the expectation is that the student must repay the favor; not to that teacher but to some future student. I experienced that at Keene early on in my career. Several teachers gave me exceptional courage to pursue a life in education, not only for myself but for others."

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