Smith Receives Top National Honor
If it hadn’t been for a stint in a hospital cancer ward with dying patients, Pacific University professor Dennis Smith might have chosen a different field.
Smith, who has taught in the College of Optometry since 1991, was honored for his teaching career this past fall at annual meeting of the American Academy of Optometry, receiving the Michael G. Harris Family Award for Excellence in Optometric Education.
The national honor is given to only one faculty member from among the 20 optometry colleges in the United States and two in Canada, effectively declaring the recipient the national professor of the year for optometric education.
Originally from the Southeast, Smith did his undergraduate work at Towson University in Maryland, majoring in biology and chemistry. At the same time, he worked full time in a teaching hospital’s emergency ward.
“I was working my way through college,” he said.
“I was basically a nurse’s aide, basically a glorified janitor, doing the nasty stuff nobody else wanted to do.
“I was fortunate to work with a lot of docs and nurses who were used to teaching and training residents. I guess because I was a student they took a shine to me, and I was really thinking I wanted to go into some medical field.”
However, Smith said, his outlook changed a bit after he worked about two weeks on a cancer ward while someone was on vacation.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this.’ … The emergency room was great, but the slow death on the cancer ward was emotionally draining.”
So, when Smith got back to work in the emergency room he talked to other employees about medical fields and had an ophthalmologist tell him that if he had to do it all over again, he would be an optometrist.
Smith started at looking at the possibility.
“I decided that was what I wanted to do, and the rest of it is history,” he said.
Being sent to the cancer ward, he said, was a definite turning point.
“It was one of those really fortunate events,” he said with a rueful laugh. “I’m grateful for that miserable experience.”
The aspect of optometry that really captured Smith’s heart has been its focus on the human element, he said.
“I like that it’s a profession where you work very closely with your patients. It demands that you take time and develop good relationships with your patients. And that’s the thing that really appealed to me after working in the hospital where you really never had the opportunity to know someone particularly well. In optometry, you have to. I think it’s the profession for those of us who just like people,” he said.
Smith earned a doctor of optometry degree in 1981 from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn., after obtaining a scholarship from the U.S. Air Force that paid for his schooling.
He served 23 years in the Air Force, 10 active duty and 13 in the reserves, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
He came to Pacific while in the Air Force and earned two master’s degrees at the university, one in physiological optics and one in clinical optometry, then returned in 1991 and has taught at Pacific ever since. Currently he teaches courses at the College of Optometry in systemic disease, physical diagnosis and advance case analysis. Smith also lectures in the School of Physical Therapy.
His teaching has garnered him many awards at Pacific, including the Junior Faculty Award in 1993, Optometry Faculty Merit Award in 1995, the Didactic Faculty of the Year in 2004 and the Teacher of the Year in 1992, 1993 and 1995.
“I love interacting with the students,” Smith said. “Students always make you think, and they always make you stay right on the edge of the profession, because that’s where they are. It’s always new for them.
“I like that it forces me to stay very current,” he added. “But, most of all, I like dealing with students. They’re excited, they’re excitable, they make everything exciting. It’s just a lot fun.”
Outside of Pacific, Smith is involved with a number of eye care programs. He has been a consultant for the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which has several facilities in Washington County.
He also is a senior fellow for the World Council of Optometry and traveled to Brazil with his wife, Nada Lingel, also a Pacific professor of optometry, for six weeks to help develop college optometry curricula at several universities.
Smith also enjoys guitars and has built several from scratch.
“That’s been a life-long love,” he said, adding that once he retires, he hopes to be a full-time luthier.