BWA 1: An AUMazing Memorial

Dr. Elizabeth D. Woodworth
March 4, 2013

Ooh, memorialising and remembering people! What a thrill, don’t you think? Building monuments and creating memorials just so that more and more people can remember what one particular person did. Of course, some people pay to have themselves memorialised, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is the difference between a monument and a memorial? In my opinion, at least, a monument is some sort of large-ish item constructed to give public memory to someone, while a memorial can be anything: book, plaque, tree, scholarship, anything. A memorial also does not have to be public: shrines that people in ancient Korea and Japan created in their homes to honor their ancestors were private memorials to loved ones who had died. Now you may ask, what is public versus private memory? Is there such a thing as public or shared memory, as opposed to individual/personal memory? I believe that there is public memory: ways that many people who may not necessarily know each other can remember certain events or people that happened long before they were ever born, or in a much different place from where they live. For instance, most Americans know who George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Rosa Parks are, and what they did. Were most of these Americans alive when Washington, Lincoln, and Parks were? It’s highly doubtful, especially since if you were alive when Washington was you’d have to be nigh on 300 years old, which is basically biologically impossible. We have a public memory of these people and their deeds, and that is how we know about them. Public memory is preserved and augmented through monuments and memorials, such as museums, physical statues and other physical items (such as gardens or walls), and history books – my personal favorite way to learn about people.

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The memorial on the campus of AUM that I have chosen to research and think and write about is an exhibit in the lobby of the AUM library tower, dedicated to, about, and donated by a travel writer who was born in Mississippi but who spent most of his life in Montgomery. I’ve passed by the photographs and books practically every day that I’ve gone to AUM. I do almost all my studying there, almost right beneath the exhibit. It piqued my interest the first time I saw it, and so I thought that this project would be a brilliant way to learn more about the exhibit and the man it honors. The exhibit is called the Starr Smith Travel Exhibit, and it showcases the books and photographs that were written and taken respectively by Vernon Starr Smith. He donated all of his work to AUM “for the benefit of the Library, the AUM community, and others interested in travel literature”. And even if you’re like me, and you don’t particularly want to read the books (not enough time, my good friends! How else could I turn away a book?), the pictures are amazing and very cool to look at. They show a whole range of scenes, from China to Russia to Israel, and you feel as though you’re travelling the world, just through looking at photographs.

When I did research on Starr Smith, I found out a lot of cool things. For instance, the way that he began his travels around the world was by signing on as a cabin boy when he was only 16. Every successive summer while he was in high school, he signed on as cabin boy to travel around the world. I think that he liked his adventures so much that he never stopped traveling. And, of course, he wrote about all of his adventures: both in books, and in newspapers and magazines for which he was a columnist. His first time writing for a newspaper was when he was in high school, in Magnolia, Mississippi. He actually asked the editor of the newspaper when he was a junior, but he wasn’t allowed to start writing for them until he was a senior. He wrote a column on school activities, and his last column for the Magnolia Gazette, on graduation, actually made the front page. I’m sure he felt a tremendous amount of excitement and gratitude for that; I know I would’ve! Also when Smith was in high school, he was known as a “notoriously poor student but a constant reader.” He was much more interested in traveling and reading than in doing his required homework: so much so, in fact, that his father once banned his librarian from letting Smith check out books until his grades improved. According to a quote from Smith that I found on someone else’s blog, “They (his grades) barely [improved]. My father finally gave up.” I think it would be quite funny to have that happen to me… Unfortunately I actually like my schoolwork, so it would never happen. XD

Starr Smith was drafted into service during World War II, where he met the famous actor and fighter pilot Jimmy Stewart, who he later wrote about. He was a combat intelligence officer in England, and served on the staff of General Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower) as a public relations officer. He also met Ernest Hemingway while serving overseas, which is really pretty cool.
After he came back from the war, he wrote for the Mobile Press Register and was a Southern correspondent for Newsweek magazine, as well as writing articles for various other national and regional publications.  His “widely acclaimed travel column” was a feature of the Sunday Montgomery Advertiser of 12 years. Three of his stories were included in the Congressional Records (as in the important records that the Library of Congress keeps [as best I can tell from Google]). He also worked as a correspondent for a group of radio stations in California and Alabama, and he was a radio reporter for both ABC and NBC, and was the primary reporter covering the Civil Rights movement in the South for those radio stations.
Starr Smith wrote three books in his lifetime: “Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot” about Jimmy Stewart, the actor and, what else, bomber pilot; “Only the Days Are Long: Reports of a Journalist and World Traveler” based on letters Smith wrote to his father and covering world events and profiles spanning 35 years; and “Starr Smith’s Southern Scenes: Journeys Through a Lovely Land” with photographs and descriptions of landmarks and other highlights of the South that Smith particularly enjoyed.

Vernon Starr Smith died of natural causes at age 94, on January 22, 2012, in  Ridgeland, Mississippi.  The obituary that was published for him in the Clarion Ledger hailed him as a “author, news journalist, photographer, raconteur and long-time Montgomery, Alabama public relations consultant,” and “a strong-believing Christian”. They held a memorial service in the city where he was born: Kosciusko, Mississippi. He was (and probably still is) survived by a daughter, granddaughter, great-grandsons, a sister, and various nieces and nephews. It seems like everyone who knew him absolutely loved him, which, if he was as interesting as my couple of sources made him sound, probably wasn’t hard. A private memorial service was held for him by his family, and he’s now buried or scattered somewhere in Mississippi, where I will never be fortunate enough to meet him.

Vernon Starr Smith wrote three books and probably hundreds of columns; his voice was known as a radio reporter all across the South; he served honorably in World War II and the Cold War; he took probably thousands of photographs exhibited all of the United States; and he met famous figures such as General Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, and Mother Teresa. He donated much of his work, collection of books, and photographs to the AUM library for those in the AUM community interested in travel literature. I’m truly amazed by what I’ve learned about him, and that makes my favorite memorial on AUM just that much cooler. I’ll still ooh and ahh over the photographs of faraway destinations, but I know the story behind the man who took them now, and that makes them just that much more beautiful. I’ve taken a journey of my own trying to follow this world traveller, and I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

Travel on!!

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