“PAUL SMITHS, N.Y., Dec. 15. – Paul Smith, the venerable Adirondack hotel man, aged 87, died to-night in the Royal Victoria Hospital, in Montreal…” (The New York Times)
On December 16, 1912, those words topped the New York Times obituary announcing the death of Apollos “Paul” Smith, who had founded, owned, and operated the St. Regis House, better known as Paul Smith’s Hotel, for 53 years. His fortune was left to his two remaining sons, Paul Jr. and J. Phelps, under whom the family empire grew. Paul Smith, Jr. passed away in 1927, and when Phelps died 10 years later, he left a $2.5 million estate – worth approximately $41.4 million in today’s dollars – in the care of an executor, to be used for the creation of a college in his father’s name, to be forever known as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences (Historic Saranac Lake).
The college, which opened in 1946, embodied the spirit of the man for whom it was named. A no-nonsense atmosphere and a hands-on, experiential philosophy quickly caught on with those looking for an education. The first class contained about 150 students, and the second, 80% of whom were World War II veterans, contained around 250 (Historic Saranac Lake).
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Richard Lewis, a Paul Smith’s alumnus of the class of ’63. Richard, a graduate of the forestry program, has been a member of the Alumni Association board for the past three years, and has signed on for another three. What I gathered from Mr. Lewis is that he, like many alumni, cherishes his time at Paul Smith’s College as some of his fondest memories. “I hold paper from four different colleges and universities,” the former director of the American Tree Farms Association told me, “but the only one I call my alma mater is Paul Smith’s College.”
Now retired and living in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lewis grew up in suburban New Jersey. “I was… well…” he hesitated, looking for the perfect words to describe himself before coming to the Adirondacks. Finally, in the laconic, efficient manner I have heard from so many Smitties, he explained, “I was a pansy.” Mr. Lewis remembers being pleasantly surprised at finding himself outside, in the woods, during the first week of his freshman year. The level of experiential learning that occurred at the Paul Smith’s College of 1961-1963 was unmatched, as far as he could tell. The bigger universities he would attend later in life, he explained, were more focused on research, and didn’t seem to care about the quality of undergraduate education… But PSC made its mark on Richard Lewis, the pansy from New Jersey. “Two years later,” he explained, “Paul Smith’s churned me out, and I was a woodsman.”
Stories like Mr. Lewis’s are what Paul Smith’s College is, and for decades has been, known for. Hands-on learning to the greatest degree possible, the rejection of stuffy “traditional” methods in favor of the best, most efficient and most effective – those elements contributed to the same spirit I fell in love with when I took my first tour of the campus in 2011. Every student I have ever seen and every alumnus I have ever met is proud to be a Smitty. They all fell in love with the spirit of Paul Smith’s College the same way I did, and many I know would go to great lengths in its defense.
When the announcement came, the community sprang into action. Change the name? The words were uttered like curses and smut. This has to be a joke. I, personally, thought the marketing and admissions departments were playing some elaborate prank. This is satire, I thought. It has to be satire. My friends and I had often joked about things like this, but surely, that’s all it was – a joke, and one often rebuffed by replies of That’s ridiculous, and Go to Hell if you really think that’ll ever happen. Then, as if I were stuck in a bad dream from which I couldn’t wake, the truth dawned on me. This is no joke. This is reality. Many fought the action, myself included. I made phone calls, I wrote emails, and I signed a petition.
I’ve come to realize, however, that maybe we don’t know what we’re fighting. The gift in exchange for the name change was proposed long before it was announced. The debate was not an easy one for anybody involved. “We agonized over the darn thing just as much as any student,” Mr. Lewis told me. He explained that, sometime in years past, the school had embarked on a long, downward spiral that, until Joan Weill’s gift, appeared to have no end other than the eventual death of the school as we all know and love it. How, though, did our beloved institution come into such dire straits?
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
– J.R.R. Tolkien
The great College of the Adirondacks faltered in one way – it was not, and like everything else in the universe it could not possibly be, immune to the effects of passing time. Some of the changes it experienced were good, to be sure. In 2000, for example, Paul Smith’s began granting baccalaureate degrees. New buildings were erected, new student demographics welcomed, and a new image was born for the college in the new millennium. However, where the cultural image of the college had once been so strong, it slowly began to fade in the face of this more contemporary iteration. Whatever influence one may pick out as responsible, it is clear that the radiant embodiment of the old PSC experience has slowly dwindled, especially in the past decade.
Campus life changed as new programs welcomed a more diverse student population, and soon the rugged nature once perceived to be inherently possessed by students, faculty, and staff became not the norm, but a standard to which many could only aspire. It felt to me that many were clinging to the Paul Smith’s College of 1975, while simultaneously, hopelessly, attempting to combine it, like oil with water, with the modernist socio-cultural standard of a large SUNY school. In that transition, certain elements of the Paul Smith’s experience were expected to carry over, but being contradictory to the newly introduced elements of a modern campus, things cancelled out. How can a rustic, low-tech culture survive when computers and the Internet are a requirement? How does the conservative woodsman’s culture live on in the face of modern liberalism? The campus is still beautiful, the education and the educators still world-class, and while I inexplicably feel a connection with those that attended PSC in the past, something that was once there is now, rather noticeably, missing.
I entered Paul Smith’s College in the Fall of 2012. When I had toured the campus in 2011, I hadn’t wanted to leave. I was still in my junior year of high school then, but I had made my decision. The mountain called my name enthusiastically, the sweet aroma of wilderness tickled my nostrils, and the lapping waves of Lower St. Regis whispered seductively, come and join us. The spirit of Paul Smith’s College attracted me like an ant to the pure, sweet maple syrup its students helped produce… but I soon realized, the only thing left was, in fact, the spirit.
The Paul Smith’s College I have known for three years is not the same college known by the 80%-veteran class of 1949. It is not the same as the one known by Wally Ganzi, John Dillon, or Jon Luther. After reading post after post on social media, I’ve discovered that my experience is wholly different from that of alumni even as recent as the 1990s and 2000s. Alumni posted pictures of the Leaning Pine, the Quad, and the old student center. In my conversations with Mr. Lewis, he spoke of the ski trails and tow rope that could be found on the hill now home to Overlook Hall. I never saw those things, long gone yet so integral to the experiences of past Smitty generations.
Some have chosen to blame the Weill family for where Paul Smith’s is now, others have chosen to blame our school’s newest president, Cathy Dove – but those accusations are wrongly placed. The Weill family was part of the PSC community long before this dramatic atrophy began to occur, and President Dove joined us long after it had taken hold. I believe, once the incredible tsunami of emotion has passed, those truths will be known. This outpouring of emotion, I have noticed, is eerily similar to what happens when a family experiences the loss of a loved one. I have seen denial, anger, depression, and guilt. We are not merely talking about thousands of people realizing this place has changed names; this is a grieving process. We are talking about the idea that Paul Smith’s College – in some form – is dead.
PAUL SMITHS, N.Y., Date Unknown – Paul Smith’s College, the venerable College of the Adirondacks, established in 1946, passed away in the night. The cause of its passage is unknown; it shall be sorely missed, but never forgotten.
Paul Smith’s College was established in the memory and in the spirit of Apollos Smith himself. After rising almost literally from the ashes of the Paul Smith’s Hotel, for nearly 70 years that spirit grew and evolved into something entirely its own. I do not know what it was that began this newest downfall, but what I do know is this: we, the Paul Smith’s Community, who love it so much, let it fall without ever knowing. We were fooled into thinking we possessed an unsinkable ship, and so even as the water poured through the holes and the bow slowly slipped below the waves, we danced on the deck and touted our infallibility. It’s only now that we are discovering we’ve just been kept afloat by an inflatable dingy. We’ve lost the body of our institution: the image of the rugged Adirondacker who takes no heed of his critics; the staunch and righteous crew that never asks for help, because help is never needed. That image, whether it was or was not ever a reality, is gone. Whomever we choose to blame, we cannot get it back, but the spirit of this place is still very much alive. It is alive because we – the students, the alumni, and friends of Paul Smith’s College – are the true legacy of our beloved place, and we still believe in that spirit.
The College of the Adirondacks, in its newest form, has a chance to rise again from the ashes and achieve a greatness it has never known. As Richard Lewis told me, this infusion of capital is “going to be like a springboard” for the college. It is commonly accepted that small, private colleges need a student base of at least 1000 students to survive; PSC has not met that minimum in over half a decade, but perhaps now it will. I have seen the love that the alumni and the local community of Adirondackers have for this place. In recent weeks, I realized exactly how massive, how passionate, and how dedicated the family I joined in 2012 truly is.
I have faith that, very soon, the community will begin the final stage of the grieving process – acceptance. Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College will now be established in the unique spirit and memory of Paul Smith’s College as it once was. It will be different, for sure – it may not be forever known as Paul Smith’s College – but it will still be the College of the Adirondacks; it will still be a place that is forever loved, forever influential, forever magical, and like the Adirondack mountains themselves, it will be forever wild. It is our responsibility to make sure of that.