Back to the 1960s – The Story of Don Smith

Several months ago I reached into the archives and pulled out an address from 1967 by President W. Robert Parks that emphasized the importance of practicing tolerance on the university campus. Across the country, the late-1960s was a period of significant generational change and Iowa State was not immune to these events. Interestingly, the address by Parks was prompted by an unlikely event–the ISU student government election of 1967. 

News article announing Smiths and Lifkas intentions to run for GSB office

Don Smith and Mary Lou Lifka announce they are entering the Government of the Student Body election. This article appeared in the April 20, 1967, issue of the Iowa State Daily. (W. Robert Parks papers, RS 2/11, box 35, folder 8)

Donald R. Smith, often described in the papers as a member of the New Left (and often called far worse things by editorial letter writers), was elected president of the student body alongside running mate Mary Lou Lifka. Their platform included the elimination of university oversight into the private lives of students and the formation of a student federation to oppose high rents in Ames. Smith strayed from the image of the typical college student that was normally elected student body president at Iowa State: he was bearded with long shaggy hair, he rarely wore socks let alone a suit and a tie, and he didn’t much care for rules. In fact it was the elimination of rules that he was most passionate about, including eliminating student curfews, loosening campus drinking policies, and essentially getting rid of any campus policies that affected students when they were outside the classroom. He supported ending the war in Vietnam, legalization of marijuana, and access to contraceptives.

Smith stated one of his goals was to bring the University “kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” It seems he felt his main opposition would come from the administration, as they were largely the rule-enforcing body. In large part the administration remained silent, even though Smith’s election made headlines from New York to San Francisco. President Parks remained remarkably quiet on the issue considering he was receiving numerous letters from irate citizens and legislators who worried Iowa State was becoming the “Berkeley of the Midwest.”

Newspaper photo of Don Smith hung in effigy on the steps of Beardshear Hall in 1967

This image of Don Smith hung in effigy on the steps of Beardshear Hall appeared in the April 8, 1967 issue of the Iowa State Daily (W. Robert Parks papers, RS 2/11, box 35, folder 8)

Perhaps what Smith didn’t realize was the level of resistance he would receive from his fellow students. Just weeks into his presidency the Iowa State Daily published an article claiming that Smith had attended a party in which marijuana was consumed. When Smith admitted that he had indeed smoked pot on numerous occasions, calls for his impeachment started to build momentum. Smith resigned before the student senate was to vote on his impeachment and withdrew from Iowa State shortly thereafter. His tenure lasted all of 40 days. 

Don Smith’s resignation letter, April 1967. (Government of the Student Body records, RS 22/1/3, box 2, folder 24)

Don Smith did return to Iowa State the following year to finish his mechanical engineering degree. However, just his formal request to re-enroll at Iowa State caused more headlines. Smith obtained graduate degrees from the University of Iowa and eventually moved to California where he became a very successful wind energy consultant and engineer. Donald R. Smith passed away in 2010, but he was welcomed back to the Iowa State campus on several occasions before his death to talk about his experience during those tumultuous years.

For his part, President Parks tried to let the students work out who they were going to have represent them. After Smith resigned, President Parks did assert that the University would continue to maintain rules governing student conduct outside of the classroom, but emphasized that administration was willing to listen and work with students to update student conduct rules.

If you would like to dive into the life of Donald R. Smith a little more there are several collections worth looking into. Materials from the papers of former President Parks and the records of the Government of the Student Body are cited above. The archives also holds files on former students and alumni (collection RS 21/7/1), largely composed of news clippings. The file on Don Smith contains a significant number of articles during his college years, but also after his graduation and up until his death. Clearly, Don Smith left an impression on the people of central Iowa.  

 

 

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