April 3, 2000
Volume 52, No. 27
Catherine Howett Smith: Making her own mark on Emory
By Eric Rangus
One of the first things Catherine Howett Smith tells you is that she's not very interesting. That's funny, since invariably the most interesting people are those who claim they're not.
"I'm not surprised she said that," says Ali Crown upon hearing of Howett Smith's self-description. Crown is an ex officio member of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, which Howett Smith chairs. "There are so many facets to Catherine. She's a unique person, and part of what makes her that is she doesn't know it."
One of those facets is her work with the PCSW. Under her leadership in the last year, the PSCW has been quite busy. The commission led the way in faculty mentoring; the students committee investigated eating disorders; and the commission was one of the first University organizations to address health care issues related to the new insurance system.
Howett Smith deflects any credit. "I'm a mere figurehead," she says. "I'm humbled to be the leader of 32 incredibly creative and intelligent women."
Still, hers is a complicated position, being the conduit of one of the most visible and active groups on campus.
"She's just a very special person," Crown says. "I think she's been an exceptional chair."
Howett Smith brings passion, an essential quality for anyone interested in art, to what she does. She also is associate director of the Carlos Museum and director of academic services, a job that, given her family tree, she was perhaps born to do.
To Howett Smith, museums--and art in general--are an integral part of a well-rounded education. She speaks from personal experience. Her father, John Howett, taught art history at Emory for 30 years, retiring in 1996. She didn't want to follow too closely in her father's footsteps but eventually embraced her attraction to art.
It's an education she hopes to pass on to her 4-year-old daughter, Hannah--"my favorite artist," she says. Like any proud patron, Howett Smith displays a sample of Hannah's work on her office door.
"I'm interested in the museum as a place to make scholarship public," she says, emphasizing each word, "so that anybody has access to works of art and the interpretation of those works of art."
After earning her bachelor's at Emory, she planned to get a master's here while working part-time, but a sign at the museum advertising an opening for an administrative assistant a changed that. She eventually got her master's in art history--10 years after she started classes, fitting them in when her schedule allowed. During that time it grew from a five-person operation (in 1985, when Howett Smith started) into the top-level collection it is now.
"I did everything from slicing strawberries for an opening to programming," she says. "As the museum grew, my career developed with it." She was promoted to her current position in 1998 and served as interim director from 1995 through 1997.
"She really, truly is the life of the museum," said Jennifer Gossett, Howett Smith's assistant and the museum's manager of budget and personnel. "She has been a mentor to me professionally and personally. She's the type of manager who makes you want to do your best. She's really set an example for learning how important it is to have grace and dignity in everything you do."
In all, Howett Smith has spent close to two decades learning and working on Emory's campus. "When people talk to me, they say, 'You were an undergraduate here, you went to graduate school here, you work here--you must love it here,' she says. "It's so funny because I do love it here."
Then her tone changes ever so slightly. "But when I was an undergraduate, I had a love/hate relationship with the physical campus." She never realized it was so beautiful. She was too focused on simply making it between classes.
When Howett Smith was 3, she contracted a polio-like virus called polyneuritis, which partially paralyzed her legs and extremities. She walks, but with some difficulty. Her hands also are not strong, although her handshake is.
"When I was younger, I didn't have the sense of 'self-advocacy' as it's called in the disabled community," she says. "I suffered in silence when I was an undergrad. I didn't think that anybody had any obligation to make things easier."
Howett Smith was an undergrad several years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Along with all other disabled students at the time, she had serious access problems on campus. Imagine climbing stairs without using your legs. That was Howett Smith's undergraduate Emory.
After earning her bachelor's degree in liberal arts in 1984, Howett Smith took action. She wrote then-President James Laney and told him of her experiences. It touched a nerve because he invited her to his office to talk. The same day she saw him, a solar eclipse visited the campus, she recalls. Any darkness accompanying it was falsely foreshadowing.
"We sat in his office for hours," Howett Smith says. "I was so impressed with his compassion for the individual experience of one student. There are 10,000 students [at Emory] and he was going to give half his day to one. The room got really dark during the eclipse. I remember that day; I remember everything about it."
The campus has changed. Howett Smith now sits on the University's disability/accessibility committee. Ramps lead up to most buildings, including the museum. Elevators are common. Just 15 years ago, there weren't even curb cuts for wheelchairs.
"She has a lot of history on this campus," says Deb Floyd, who works with Howett Smith on the PCSW and the disability/accessibility committee. "She knows how things were and how they need to be."
"Gosh, I wish I could be an undergraduate again so I didn't have to [plan my schedule] based on whether the classes were close together," Howett Smith says, not with regret but triumph. "Maybe I made some contribution that day in Dr. Laney's office.
"I feel good now when I see disabled students who have an integrated and enriching college experience. I've had so many great experiences in my professional career here, and as great as Emory is, I want to make it even better."
Like her first statement, Howett Smith's last one is ironic, since you know her presence already does.