‘The Perfect Combination of Teacher and Preacher’

June 5, 2020

The late Rev. Dr. Ben H. Smith taught English at Mary Baldwin beginning in 1960 and served as department chair during the 1970s, later leaving academia to become an Episcopal priest. Smith died at the age of 88 on May 7 from complications after a stroke.

“He was the perfect combination of teacher and preacher,” said James “Jim” Lott, dean emeritus of Mary Baldwin and former colleague and longtime friend of Smith. (See below for a special tribute to Smith written by Lott.) “And I think many students found him to be a pastor even before he was formally ordained. He was just really kind.”

Smith’s expertise was in Early and Middle English literature, and his dissertation, “Traditional Images of Charity in Piers Plowman,” first published in 1966, is still available on Amazon. On the first day of his Old English class, he would play his ukulele and sing the opening lines of Beowulf. He also taught courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and 17th century poetry at Mary Baldwin.

“His knowledge of Chaucer and Shakespeare were exhaustive — as was his ability to inspire us to love both poets, and all of us who managed it felt quite lucky to have landed in his classes,” said Shelley Wilgus Murray ’73, who was an English major.

Smith was also the first director of the joint Mary Baldwin and Davidson College study abroad program at Oxford University, which is now the Virginia Program at Oxford, sponsored by MBU and several other Virginia colleges and universities. He led a group of Mary Baldwin students with his wife, Lilly, and their then three children to study Elizabethan history and literature at St. Anne’s College of Oxford in summer months during the late 1960s.

A devoted Anglophile, Smith opened a small shop in the Wharf District for British imports, called “Things from England,” while he was teaching at Mary Baldwin. During his summer travels, he would visit village shops and pick up antiques to sell back in Staunton.

He was also an accomplished musician, and while in Staunton he sang in the choir at Trinity Episcopal Church; played the organ at Emmanuel Episcopal Church; and served as cantor for Temple House of Israel.

He briefly considered a career as a professional organist or pianist after he graduated from high school, but instead switched focus to the study of literature, earning a bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon College, a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — all in English.

Ben Smith during his time teaching English at Mary Baldwin; (left) from the 1963 Bluestocking, and (right) from 1977. In the latter yearbook, each professor had a quote printed next to their photograph. Smith’s was “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano” from The Merchant of Venice.

Before his tenure as a professor, Smith had a connection with Mary Baldwin because of his wife, the late Lilly Simril Smith, who was a student when they met on a blind date in Staunton. The couple married in 1955, and went on to raise four children together.

The Smiths lived near campus, and often welcomed students for social gatherings.

“We surprised them by Christmas carolling at their house; of course, they invited all of us in and Lilly offered us cooking sherry as a reward,” said Murray, whose Class of 1973 was sponsored by the Smiths. “Ben was delighted by all this, but mostly by her. For us young women, their marriage was perfection.”

Smith was in his 50s when he was called into the priesthood, leaving Mary Baldwin to attend General Theological Seminary in New York City. He was ordained in 1983 and from 1985 to 1999, he served as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton, Maryland, just north of Baltimore.

“His sermons were like his lectures, carefully constructed, always moving to an epiphany: a journey with a destination,” said Lott.

Laura Hall ’72, former English major at Mary Baldwin, took Chaucer and Shakespeare courses with Smith, who she remembers as “jovial, lively, and exacting.” Her parents moved to Staunton in 1976, four years after she graduated, and her mother, Cornelia Hall — also an English major — audited classes with some of her daughter’s former Mary Baldwin professors.

“My mother and Ben Smith clicked, especially with his Chaucer class,” said Laura Hall. “Because of her lifelong affinity for the color red (she wore some form of it daily and had a red jeep, red sheets, red china, etc.), Dr. Smith realized that she clearly identified with the Dame Alice of Bath (with her red hose).

It was in 1985 that my mother died of cancer and Dr. Smith, who by then had left Staunton and become an Episcopalian minister, was asked by my family to conduct her funeral at Covenant Presbyterian Church. He fittingly wore his red, ministerial robes and conducted the most perfect service for our mother. He spoke of her ‘zest and appreciation for life in all its myriad detail and all of its physicality’ (like the dame) and of her ‘ever renewing, ever renewed hope’ and said that he had come to love my mother and she him. And so it was full circle.”

After serving as a rector, Smith worked for the Episcopal diocese at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation until retiring in 2015.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a memorial service is not scheduled at this time, but condolences may be sent to Lilly Richardson, 53 Aigburth Ave., Towson, MD., 21286. Those interested in making a memorial gift can direct their donation to Shrine Mont, Box 20, Orkney Springs, VA. More detail may be found in Smith’s obituary.

A tribute to the late Rev. Ben Smith, former Mary Baldwin English professor

From his friend James Lott, dean emeritus and professor emeritus of English

I met Ben in spring 1964 when my wife, Pam, and I came to Mary Baldwin for my interview. Ben and his wife, Lilly, joined us for dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Spencer [the late Samuel R. Spencer Jr. was Mary Baldwin’s fifth president], and that started a friendship that lasted 56 years. My last conversation with him was a phone call about a week before he died. He was simply my best friend, and our wives were best friends as well.

The Smith and Lott families lived at either end of Sherwood Avenue in Staunton. Their four children and our four children were friends, and Ben and Lilly were first-rate entertainers of faculty and staff and of students. I remember especially an evening when an Oxford scholar, Kirstie Morrison, was visiting them, and they gathered a group of faculty to sing Gilbert and Sullivan, and it wasn’t too bad!

Ben and I co-taught several courses, and at one point all the English Department faculty taught the senior seminar together. Ben was always the gentle voice, encouraging students and leading rather than pushing them. He was our natural leader, and he headed the department for most if not all the 1970s.

Around 1980, he gave in to what he felt had been a multi-year call to go to seminary, and the Smiths left Staunton. We visited one another many times over the years, including taking beach trips together with a group of friends and seeing him and his daughter when we went to Baltimore, where one of our daughters lived. He was a true beach lover, and his childhood memories often went to the house his grandmother owned on a bay in the Tidewater. He was a product of Virginia culture at its best, very interested in family history, but never snobbish. In fact his family stories emphasized eccentric aunts more than anything else.

It’s hard to capture the essence of a man or woman. Bright and interested in many things, a kind of Renaissance man, hospitable, talented, spiritual, empathetic. He lived a full life and made many people happy.