Jim Smith in His Own Words: 42 Years at UCR

From an undergraduate to associate director of student housing, Jim Smith has seen a lot of changes since arriving on campus

For the last 42 years, Jim Smith has been a familiar face on the UCR campus. He is easily recognizable in a motorized wheelchair, whether people-watching at University Village or reading a book while sitting under a tree near the bell tower.

But while Jim’s face is familiar, his life story may not be. Having been part of the UCR community since the early 1970s as an undergraduate, graduate student, employee and retiree, Smith is a bastion of knowledge. We asked him to share his story and his memories of the campus, in his own words.

The Injury

I was in my 20s, living in Southern Indiana with aspirations of becoming a commercial pilot. With only 14 hours of commercial flight training remaining before graduation, that hopeful career ended on a hot summer afternoon in 1967. An accident while diving into a swimming pool left me with a broken neck and immediately paralyzed from the neck down.

After hospitalization and intense physical therapy, in which I was still optimistic of at least some recovery, I was transferred to the FDR Rehabilitation Center in Warm Springs, Georgia.

On the morning following my arrival, the doctor said, “I am sorry but I know of no way to easily present this to you. You have had three fractured cervical vertebra with irreversible spinal damage. You’ll never walk again, and it is unlikely you will ever recover any additional physical movement. You will always need assistance with your daily needs and activities.”

“I hope you did not come here expecting miracles, because we cannot perform those,” he added after a moment of hesitation. “What we can do is provide you with arm splints and some adaptive equipment which will allow you to feed yourself, do a few simple grooming tasks and drive your wheelchair.”

It didn’t seem like much of an offer. I was numb from what I had just been told, and the remainder of what the doctor had to say seemed far off in the distance.

But the doctor continued and gave me some sage advice.

“Do not waste your young life chasing miracle cures, for they do not exist,” he continued. “There are a lot of good people on this earth that can help you with your physical needs, and there is no reason you cannot get a good education, hold down a job, and live a fairly active and normal life.”

Many days and sleepless nights followed as I pondered what kind of a life would be possible for someone who could do little more physically than feed himself and brush his hair. Not much of a life at all, I concluded, and at times I wasn’t sure if it was a life I wanted to live.

Coming to California — and UCR

The doctor’s advice seemed the only sensible course, but I felt totally unprepared and fearful of any such academic pursuits. I had done well in flight ground school, but my earlier school days had mostly been spent majoring in girls and recess, studying occasionally and receiving little more than passing grades. However, I decided that with little alternative, I would give college my best try.

My older brother and sister each lived with their families in the Los Angeles area and they encouraged me to move here and attend El Camino Community College. Earning my associate degree gave me the confidence I needed to seek out a four-year college.

In the early ‘70s, UCR was one of the few colleges in the nation that had a program designed specifically to accommodate students with disabilities. Funded by a federal grant, UCR’s Project Hope was aggressively eliminating architectural barriers and providing transportation, counseling and other supportive services to accommodate the needs of a large number of students with disabilities.

I remember my first day on campus in 1971. As I arrived to move in, I inquired about the location of the dorm, and was directed to Lothian Hall. However, at the check-in desk I was informed that it was an all-girls dorm. My momentary hopes of residing in paradise were dashed when I was sent to Aberdeen-Inverness, which for the most part still had single-sex halls.

I immediately felt a close connection to UCR and became involved in extracurricular activities, as a tour guide with the group then known as the Tam-O-Shanters, and an internship with what was at that time the Personnel Department. I was a member of various interview committees, and later the Registration Fee Committee and the Campus Grievance Committee.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, I was inspired to continue on for my master’s degree, and was so fortunate that a staff position became available at UCR just as I received an M.B.A. in December 1977. I applied and was accepted in January 1978. I would work as the associate director of student housing for the next 20 years, before retiring.

Over the Years

I started at UCR during the tail end of the hippie counterculture movement;  long hair, Roman sandals and anti-establishment attitudes were still in vogue. I recall the year Lothian Hall was closed due to low occupancy, and when co-ed halls were first introduced at A-I; the excitement on campus when the biomedical sciences program was first established; and the controversy over a recruiting poster stating, “The Only Thing We Have to Offer Is A Damn Good Education.”

I recall areas on campus being roped off and the tight security for a visit of a California governor — Ronald Reagan. At the time, his signature appeared on UCR diplomas.

I remember when graduation took place on a single Sunday afternoon, and the big end-of-the-year celebration was the Chancellor’s Ball; when the national fad hit campus and laughter roared as small groups of students, wearing nothing but a smile, streaked across campus and through lecture and dining halls.

And I remember when the campus began to grow and gained new buildings. The Bourns College of Engineering was one of the first, but new ones appeared almost annually. I remember when Highlander Hall was a Ramada Inn, University Extension a Holiday Inn, and the area known as University Village was occupied by a Howard Johnson’s Inn, a Ford dealership and a few gas stations.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I feel fortunate to have been a part of a developing UC campus. UCR was good to me, and I hope in some small way I contributed to its mission as well. I still feel rewarded when someone reminds me that I interviewed them for the job they have or had, or when an alumnus thanks me again, from so many years ago, for arranging an extended payment plan which allowed them to remain in school and graduate.

There is no doubt I have had a lot of luck along my journey. I have not been plagued with recurring health problems so many quadriplegics suffer from. I have had a supportive family, a dependable wheelchair and care providers (most of the time), and an opportunity to acquire an education and employment.

My trek began nearly a half-century ago when a doctor’s few words of advice pointed me in the direction I would ultimately follow. I am grateful to so many people, without whose help my future would not have been possible, and to UCR for my education and career. The future I had feared so much so long ago, despite the hardships that came with it, would culminate in a future I believe was not only worthwhile, but rewarding and enjoyable as well.

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