Michael Ray Smith talks his time at Lee University, his wife’s passing and seasons of life
With the close of the semester comes the end of a season for one Lee professor.
Professor of Public Relations Dr. Michael Ray Smith is departing from Lee University after two and a half years of teaching in order to take care of his 89-year-old mother.
Smith said the circumstances bringing him to Lee University were bred in tragedy.
“Barbara, my wife, got very sick. We didn’t realize how sick she was until one day she said, ‘I have this headache that will not go away.’ It was a tumor. She had brain cancer,” Smith said. “So, we spent a bunch of time in West Palm Beach, Florida, getting her treatment, but it looked pretty grim. [So], she said, ‘I would like to spend my last days near my grandchildren.”
Barbara Jean Smith’s grandchildren are in Johnson City, Tennessee — about 180 miles from Cleveland. Smith landed at Lee University, allowing his wife to be closer to her grandkids.
Smith said that his time at Lee University is colored with sadness due to the passing of his wife on Jan. 24, 2017, at the age of 58.
“I will remember Cleveland as a pretty sad time. But then there will be moments where I think, ‘Yeah, but despite that, people were pretty good to me.’ And I try to return the favor. I keep thank-you cards in my desk,” Smith said. “Have you heard the Dickens line that says, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’? In my case, it was the worst of times — just tragedy, tragedy, tragic comedy and so on. Having said that, in the last three months, I must have received more than 30 unsolicited cards, emails and words of affirmation.”
Smith said that, in the times where he felt himself unraveling, he found God was in the midst of it.
“I would say God has really been trying to get my attention. I’m a bit of a slow study. Sometimes, when you lose a loved one, you tend to withdraw. I didn’t help myself like that,” Smith said. “There have been different people who didn’t even know it, but they were just the right voice at the right time. People don’t necessarily have to say ‘God is looking out for you.’ We just share a laugh.”
In spite of his impulses to withdraw, Smith said he has managed to build friendships with faculty and students.
“It’s remarkable to me how mature many of our students are beyond their years. They do have a heartbeat that I’ve not seen anywhere else. So, that’s a mercy, and it’s a great, energizing impulse,” Smith said. “At my age, you tend to not think people are genuine and authentic, and they are. We have plenty of faculty that are like that, and we have plenty that are not, but they have their own deal and are struggling with stuff that others don’t know about.”
One coworker, Associate Professor of Communication Arts Dr. Luis Almeida, said that Smith has been an influence in his life and family.
“He is a happy fella. That’s something you don’t find often in higher education. He has that gift,” Almeida said. “He is a caring man and a true Christian. You can see it by how he behaves and how he speaks to people. Michael has a gift to make people laugh and is always ready for conversation.”
Smith said that he wants to be remembered by Lee students as someone who pushed them to go beyond what they believe they can do.
“I get excited when students have a good experience,” Smith said. “[I want to] help them flourish and motivate them enough to push themselves to be better than other students at other universities.”
Senior public relations major Libby Hennen said that Smith has achieved his goal of motivating his students.
“He takes so much time editing our papers and giving us critiques. He strives to make us better writers and better people. He uses the classroom as the medium, but his message is how to practically bring Christianity into the professional world,” Hennen said. “One memory that sticks out the most was, a few weeks ago, he said that a journalist’s job is so similar to that of an evangelist. What he meant was that journalists, like evangelists, share the truth with as many people as they can, bringing justice, peace and hopefully good news.”
Smith said that he hopes he has taught students to apply the habits of the heart — forgiveness, kindness and generosity — in their faith.
“I hope I’ve not presented Christianity as one-dimensional but that we are a big tent and we have lots of pilgrims that are headed towards Canterbury [Cathedral],” Smith said. “We all are a bit eccentric and a bit different, but we can still share that common heartbeat, and I hope that’s what people get.”
Junior journalism major Megan Jones said that Dr. Smith’s kindness and ability to listen to others has made her want to learn more as a student.
“He has such a genuine care for each and every one of his students,” Jones said. “The investment he places in all of us is inspiring and encouraging. We need to see more of that.”
At the end of the semester, Smith is set to move to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, where his mom resides. Smith said that he is happy with the time he spent at Lee in its mixture of melancholy and joy.
“My time at Lee has certainly helped me see some areas where I could be better,” Smith said. “I see life in terms of, ‘You either tolerate, appreciate or celebrate.’ Lee has been very kind to me. In return, I really try to celebrate my students and my colleagues.”