After 11 years of toil, Gaddis Smith nears completion of Yale history

G. Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 — with his gray blazer and yellow t-shirt, his ironed khakis and casual sneakers — settles into a booth at the venerable Mory’s.

The scene reeks of Yale past. Anonymous initials — EL & KL, RD & MS — are sketched in the wood behind the history professor emeritus’ cropped white hair; oars from past Harvard-Yale regattas hang overhead.

The professor orders a Baker’s Soup, a turkey sandwich and a Virgin Mary (“It’s like a Bloody Mary, but without the vodka,” he explains).

“This was much more complicated than even I thought it would be,” he says.

Smith, of course, is not alluding to his menu choice — he has, after all, visited Mory’s now hundreds of times since the mid-twentieth century, and has been honored with the club’s highest honor, the Mory’s Cup in 1997; ordering here is second nature.

He is instead referring to his eleven-year quest to achieve no ordinary task: Writing the perfect biography of Yale — one that does not treat the University as an isolated bubble, as past histories have, but instead measures the influence of the external world on the so-called Ivory Tower; one that manages to fit an entire Eli century into a single volume, and not two.

It’s taking longer than expected. Yale President Richard Levin asked Smith in 1997 to take a lead in tercentennial festivities, and he has been spelunking the annals of Elihu ever since, particularly after retiring from full-time teaching in 1999.

“I guess it’s the old journalist in me,” he says, “because I can’t stop absorbing.”

But there’s more. This is a history that Smith has been absorbing for far longer than the past decade; it is a history he has been living — and in which he has played “a minor,” if not substantial, role since the early 1950s.

“I’ve known or met all but the first two presidents and Yale College deans who have served this century, and I’ve seen a lot of our history first-hand,” he told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 1999.

Smith’s acquaintance with Yale began during his own bright college years.

After marrying as a freshmen — and following a year of sleepless nights spent as chairman of the News — he graduated as one of the 923 members of the class of 1954, the last all-white undergraduate class at Yale. And a three-year teaching stint at Duke aside, he has remained in New Haven ever since.

“Even though I’ve watched it change year by year,” he notes, “I am astounded.”

The change Smith observed was drastic. The Yale he entered in the fall of 1950 was all white. Administrators made a conscious effort to limit the number of Jews in the faculty and the student body. The storied institution kept its gates closed to the rest of the world.

The Yale of today would have been almost unimaginable to Smith and his classmates. Almost a third of Yale students are not white. The University’s president is Jewish. Administrators tout Yale as a “global” institution.

That all makes the working title of his book particularly apt.

“Yale and the External World: the Transformation of the University since 1900” will explore the “contours through time” that have brought the University to where it is today. It will tell the stories of the people and moving parts of Yale through more than two-dozen chapters ranging from “A. Whitney Griswold: Conservative Idealist” to “Levin + Money = A New Yale,” from “Climbing Science Hill” to “Empire of the Humanities.”

He hopes his biography will focus less on Yale’s internal history than George Pierson’s ’26 two-volume work, and more on the trends that have made it into the institution it is today.

The University’s internal inertia did its part to change it. But so did external forces, even as Yale sought to shield itself from the outside world. Smith acknowledges in retrospect just how reactionary the Yale of the 1950s was, and no personality embodied that reactionism more than Griswold, the president at the time.

Then again, though Griswold was a true believer in the Ivory Tower and Yale’s removal from the hurly-burly of post-war America, the president’s close friend, then-provost Kingman Brewster ’41 — chairman of the News several years before Smith — ultimately contrasted with him in nearly every way.

It was Brewster, a favored son of a wealthy New England clan with deep-rooted ties to Yale, who decided to admit women to the College in 1969. Under his administration, concerted efforts were made to attract minority students and Martin Luther King Jr. was granted an honorary degree. And he made the decision to throw open Yale’s wrought iron gates to the crowds that descended on New Haven during the Black Panther trials in 1970.

Within a decade of Griswold’s death, the University was unrecognizably different. The Ivory Tower, Smith argues, never really existed after all; Yale’s course was always intertwined with that of the outside world. The changes of the 1960s were inevitable.

Brewster’s tenure in Woodbridge Hall was indeed revolutionary. But in the scheme of presidents, Smith says, Levin has altered Yale most drastically.

“He certainly has changed more than any other president,” Smith says. “He’s got an incredible memory, and he’s willing to take some risks — but risks that are worthwhile.” (Levin, for his part, says “modesty forbids” reaction to Smith’s praise of him as, essentially, the most effective president in Yale history.)

For his part, Smith’s penchant for observing history through an international lens has rubbed off on Levin. In an e-mail from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Levin says Smith inspired him to think more critically about Yale’s global expansion.

Smith’s international outlook may be reflected in his focus on broad themes in analyzing Yale’s history. According to a two-page outline Smith handed the News, those themes include:

*There is not — and never was — an Ivory Tower here.

*All money comes with strings.

*The University has transitioned from fighting against change to accepting and, in some degree, trying to influence change.

*The federal government’s impact on Yale has gone from “minimal to sweeping.”

Smith also explores the “often controversial role of the university in war, peace and national security,” “the explosive cost and complications of health care” and the impacts of a changing population.”

The most surprising revelation: just how closely intertwined Yale’s fate is with that of the world around it.

Smith cites as evidence Yale’s pocketbook. The venerable Yale has indeed thrived during ages of striking prosperity — during the Roaring 1920s, for example, and again today.

But times have also been tough. During the economic woes of the 1970s, when Smith was master of Pierson College, it was sometimes difficult to find funds to make the most basic of repairs.

“Yale was trying to protect itself from the outside,” he said, but alas: It didn’t succeed.

***

As for Smith’s minor role in that evolution of Yale history, its roots are in large part grounded at 202 York St., where Smith led the News for a year, writing editorials and schmoozing with staffers.

“He was an outstanding chairman and an outstanding guy, and of course he proved that in subsequent years,” says his Board’s sports editor, Robert D. Haws ’54., who recalled late nights penning stories and predictions about Bulldog athletic matches. “He had his finger on everything that was going on.”

Perhaps to a fault.

Smith had been prepared to publish his book years ago; a Yale Alumni Magazine story reported in 1999 that the history would be released the following year. But his plans were derailed.

“9/11 did unsettle some of my assumptions, and I thought ‘maybe I had better do an epilogue,’ ” he said. The epilogue quickly became unwieldy, and Smith found himself rethinking much of the book. “But I really think I’ll be all done with it by this summer,” Smith insists.

Soon after, though, while slurping on his Baker’s Soup and leaning against the Mory’s wall, he qualifies his statement and reminds the News reporters that he is still as much living and breathing the Yale history as he is writing about it.

“Just keeping up day by day with what’s going on at Yale is a full-time job.”

—Tyler Hill and Andrew Mangino

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