By Jennifer Abraham Cramer
Elaine Smyth retires soon from LSU after serving for over twenty-six years. To see her accomplishments, of which there have been many, I encourage you to check out this blog post. What I’d like to think about today are her efforts pertaining to the Williams Center for Oral History.
As Elaine and her husband, David, pack boxes that will soon arrive to their cozy cabin destination in North Carolina, and I reflect upon eight years of working for Elaine, retrospect kicks in (along with a dash of panic!). Few times in life does one get the privilege of reporting to a great supervisor, a strong leader, and an impressive mentor–all in one person. Elaine has not only encouraged “audacious goals” and supported the Center’s mission through her actions time and again, but she also helped us to grow and flourish.
In 2007, Elaine helped the Center restructure so that we could incorporate an in-house digitization initiative of the Center’s 4,000 hours of analog recordings. Though now commonplace, at the time this was a pretty new concept. She supported several summer field projects, like the History of the 1927 Flood, Baton Rouge Blues, and the History of Standard Oil, and she encouraged the Center’s foray into podcasting in 2009–we were one of the first centers to do something like that! In 2010, when the state budget cuts gutted the Center’s funding and our very existence hung in tenuous balance, Elaine was right there with me, with rolled-up shirt sleeves, as we strategized survival.
In the ensuing four years, that short-term tenacity turned into long-term resolution: we maintained a holding pattern until 2012 when Elaine, then Head of Special Collections, helped secure important funding from Louisiana Sea Grant. As Elaine became Interim Dean of LSU Libraries, she re-stabilized funding for the Center director’s position, and we’ve been rockin’ it ever since! In just the last year, we’ve set up a permanent Oral History Listening Station in Hill Memorial Library Lecture Hall that features rotating collections, we began a partnership with the LSU AgCenter and College of Agriculture, we helped bring the CWPPRA “I Remember” exhibit to Hill, I got to co-teach “Doing Oral History” with Dr. Helen Regis, we started working with new partners like the Louisiana State Medical Society, the LSU School of Art, and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, we’ve had two “Oral History Days,” we redesigned our blog, updated our website, added dozens of collections to the LLMVC for researcher availability, and we applied for two grants to expand even further (fingers crossed).
I can’t help but wonder where the Center would be without Elaine. I suspect we stewards of oral history do not want to know the answer to that question. What I learned from her guidance through the past eight years, and in particular during the past four, was all about timing: “Worry efficiently” she once told me. Since 2007, seeing her in action has taught me some good long-view strategies: knowing when and how to act quickly, when to be patient, when to stand your ground, and when to be flexible. And most importantly, that times of calamity and good fortune ebb and flow–the key is maintaining composure and creating opportunities during both.
Thank you, Elaine, for believing in us and for all that you’ve done. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work under your guidance. Enjoy retirement! And to use one of your most common closing salutations–Cheers!!!!