‘A good way to live’

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff writer

Most Linfield students are grappling with student debt, choosing a career path and picking the next show to binge watch. For one Linfield student, all these worries are distant memories.

Helen Marie Redbird-Smith is a member of the Cherokee tribe, anthropology professor Emeritus, and a current Linfield student.

Once a professor at Western Oregon University during a period of remarkable cultural change, Redbird-Smith now resides in McMinnville and is proud to call herself a Wildcat.

“On the surface, [Linfield] looks like an ordinary, small liberal arts college but when you get into it and look at it, it is a magnificent liberal arts college,” she said.

She is currently taking Introduction to African Cinema but has studied Japanese and Chinese, and taken various art classes at Linfield on the McMinnville campus.

Because many of her classes require the use of Blackboard and Redbird-Smith needs help navigating the site, she is a familiar, well-loved presence in the library. No need for a last name, ask anyone about Helen and they will sing her praises.

Because she is “technologically challenged,” a phrase that amuses her, she has a particularly close relationship with the reference workers at the library who help her operate the computer.

“I first helped Helen during a dead Saturday opening shift at the library. She asked me to log into her email but she knew nothing about computers so I ended up walking her through email and Blackboard every Saturday for two years,” Rachel Bradshaw, ’17, said.

The hunger for learning that brings Redbird-Smith into the library and the classroom is something she doesn’t take lightly. In her search for a retirement community, having an institute of higher learning nearby was her main criteria.

Redbird-Smith’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge is an inspiration to the students who know her.

“Every time I see her, I think to myself, ‘I want to be just like her when I grow old.’ She’s 90-something and is taking college classes to learn new things and I think that’s amazing,” reference worker Elide Sanchez-Rivera, ’19, said. “To still want to learn and gain new knowledge is absolutely wonderful.”

Her desire for knowledge is exceeded only by her kind-hearted nature.

“She gave me chocolate for Halloween that first semester, then proceeded to bring treats on a regular occurrence,” Bradshaw said. She continues this tradition and brings weekly treats for the library workers, which only endears her more to the staff of always-hungry college students.

Redbird-Smith knows very well the psyche of college students, having spent about 30 years as an anthropology professor at Western Oregon University, where she is now professor Emeritus.

During her time at WOU, she was at the epicenter of a large cultural shift in higher education in Oregon. “We were bucking that system of state allocation of what you could teach and what you can’t teach,” Redbird-Smith said.

The period of the most concentrated change at WOU began in the early 1960s and ended in 1988. “It was an innovative time and a time of change,” she said.

WOU produced teachers by the dozen but felt suffocated by its reputation as a school only for those interested in education.

“University of Oregon had a lock on anthropology and sociology, on liberal arts period. And [WOU] was Oregon’s college of education, we were trying to break that lock so it was a very difficult time to establish and get more liberal arts into education.”

Along with the addition of more liberal arts into the curriculum, WOU was faced with a changing student demographic. “The public was beginning to demand that we have a bigger student body than just those who were going into teaching and coaching and things of that nature.

“They wanted programs for other kinds of work and the people that really were being hurt economically were those that could not meet the standards of the salary schedule that said you had to have a baccalaureate degree,” she said.

A salary schedule dictates not only what a person is paid but when they are eligible for a raise based on several factors, one of which is a college degree.

Because of this, colleges saw an increase in police and parole officers and other adults who otherwise might not have gone back to school.

Redbird-Smith also saw the return of veterans from both Korea and Vietnam.“We taught classes in the evening, we taught classes on Saturday in order to give them the opportunity to get a degree in order to be economically self-sufficient.”

This often meant that the professors had to be flexible and willing to adapt to sometimes unusual situations. “It was that kind of a time. You had to adjust to the students needs and so it was a fascinating time,” she said.

“I think that we helped them be strong enough to meet what they thought life ought to be about rather than what their parents thought life ought to be about and so those are the things that, as a professor, I think are most gratifying. To see the evolution of a person and the strength and the other gratifying thing is for the parents to come and say, ‘Thank you, really thank you for helping.’”

Often the most routine lessons, the ones that seemed the most innocuous, were the ones that made an impact on her students.

She remembers one instance in particular of parents who thanked her for introducing their son to the null hypothesis,“I thought of all the things to be glad about but it did put in perspective how to make decisions. They were science decisions but it also transferred to the social and cultural dimension of your life.”

For Redbird-Smith, teaching was about figuring out “how could you do it, what way could you do it so that they could accomplish being what they wanted to be, and so I just loved it. I thought it was a good way to live.”