C. William Smith

Civil Engineering, Class of 1947, BS
Applied Mechanics, Class of 1950, MS

Few retirees have the honor of hearing themselves described as an “icon” in their field. One of the most deserving is Virginia Tech’s C.W. “Bill” Smith, 80, whose name is synonymous with its Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics (ESM).

ESM alumnus and benefactor Pat Artis, a 1972 engineering mechanics (EM) graduate, explains some of the rationale for Smith’s prominent status: “During the ’60s and the ’70s, Bill taught experimental stress analysis, the capstone senior level experimental methods and lab course. This was the most time consuming and difficult undergraduate course in EM. Everyone knew this because Bill, with his trademark cackle of a laugh, made it clear during the first lecture.

“He further explained that anyone who passed the course would be treated to a wonderful dinner prepared by his wife Doris at their historic home in Christiansburg. Like many seniors before and after me, that was the most satisfying meal that I have ever eaten. That course also sealed a life-long friendship (with Bill) and focused my career on experimental methods.”

In Smith’s field of research, fracture mechanics, his work is known “worldwide” as are his contributions to the discipline of photoelasticity, adds Robert Heller, an engineering colleague. 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 is the epitome of the hometown boy who made good. Born in Christiansburg, Virginia, he lives today 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.

And his commute in 2006 is also another sign of his more profitable times. In the 1940s when he was attending Virginia Tech as an engineering student, he would often hitch a ride on the local mail truck or talk the resident taxi cab driver into giving him the nine-mile ride for a “small fee.” He would then walk from the Cambria taxi stand to his Christiansburg home.

The enterprising youngster also found innovative ways to support himself. When he inherited a large number of mail boxes from the building his grandfather owned, Smith approached Virginia Tech’s Vice President for Finance Stuart Cassell and brokered a deal with him. “The GIs were returning after the end of the war, and they were being quartered at the Radford Arsenal, so Mr. Cassell bought all of my mailboxes for them, and consequently financed my senior year,” Smith recalls. It did help that tuition at Virginia Tech at the time was $40 a quarter.

He garnered some experience his senior year teaching mathematics, and that landed him an offer from Dan Pletta, the EM department head, to remain at the university. 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 says, 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 recalls 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 SEM 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.

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. “I always enjoyed teaching very much and got along well with the students,” Smith says. He served as an unofficial advisor to the 15 or 20 ESM seniors. And he and his wife Doris, now 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 continues to come to the office, and kept his research laboratory until recently. “I enjoyed my research – applying optical methods of measurement to 3-dimensional fracture problems. The more I knew about it, the more I liked it. It was like digging a hole. My breadth of knowledge decreased but my depth increased.” With his lab now closed, he spends 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’s Who in Frontiers of Science and Technology.

Known fondly as the ESM Department’s “Chaplain,” Smith says he is not “sure where he picked up the nickname, but I guess my ability to see the humorous side of everything had something to do with it. There was also a time when, as the oldest person in the department, I was recruited to form a committee to help solve technical disagreements between faculty members.”

Smith has a daughter, Terry, who resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with her husband Larry Kelley and their two daughters. His son David lives in Christiansburg with a daughter and one grandson.

Class of: 1947 (CE), Class of: 1950 (AM)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2006

C. William Smith