Fond Farewell: Anthropology Professor Emerita and Museum Benefactor Valene L. Smith
Professor Emerita Valene L. Smith, who taught anthropology at Chico State for more than 30 years and helped establish its anthropology museum, passed away January 16. She was 97.
Born February 14, 1926, in Spokane, Washington, she was raised with a passion for travel and deeper understanding about the world. Picking hops and pears in migrant worker camps to pay her way through school, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from University of California, Los Angeles, in 1946, followed by a master’s degree in the subject in 1950. She described her educational pursuit as her “passport to a better understanding of the countries she hoped to visit.”
Her life and career would come to be characterized by the vast knowledge she gained during global travels and research, and her commitment to sharing her passion and expertise. Smith inspired generations of travelers and academics across the globe but especially at Chico State, where the museum of anthropology would come to bear her name.
Smith’s lifelong motto was, “learn by doing, teach by being.” By 1947, she had already traveled to all 48 states in the nation. After completing her master’s, she began to travel the world while teaching at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College. She eventually opened Jet-Age Travel Service in North Hollywood, where travel, adventure, and research contributed to her PhD in anthropology from the University of Utah. In 1967, Smith accepted a tenure-track position at Chico State College, where she would spend the next several decades invigorating others with curiosity about the world.
Teaching during the academic year, overseeing a travel agency, and leading summer tours to Europe, India, and Asia, she was a true trailblazer and unafraid to ask bold questions. When she asked in the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, “Is anyone else interested in the study of tourism?” it resulted in a panel at the association’s 1974 conference that legitimized tourism anthropology as a field of study. Her groundbreaking book, Hosts and Guests, arose from this meeting and is still in publication, having been translated into many languages. Hosts and Guests, her preferred term for “tourists and attractions,” used case studies from around the world to examine the complex and subtle social repercussions of tourism for the first time and remains widely in use today.
Professor Will Nitzky was drawn into the field of anthropology in part due to Hosts and Guests, and said he still draws on Smith’s research. He was honored to meet and work with her upon his hiring at Chico State.
“As a specialist of cultural anthropology, heritage tourism, and museum studies, I was in awe of Valene,” he said. “She stood only up to my chest, but her presence was monumental. The sparkle in her eyes held years of exploring, learning, and educating—all of the things that I aspire to in my career as a professor.”
In 1981, Smith was named Outstanding Professor of the California State University system. Her nomination for the honor included hundreds of letters from students, colleagues, and community members. Students described her as among the best and most dedicated faculty member they had, credited her for their decision to major in anthropology, and said she played a pivotal role in their persistence toward their degree. Dozens of colleagues shared praise for her contagious energy and enthusiasm, her commitment to her discipline, and her contributions to the community.
“Valene was one of our best teachers and truly a wonderful person. She was a champion of Chico State anthropology even before she came to campus in 1967,” said Professor Emeritus Keith Johnson. “Establishing the anthropology museum on campus was her idea and after it opened in 1970, she supported it in a number of ways for the rest of her life. My wife, Karen, and I especially remember the southwest tours she led to benefit the campus museum and the Chico History Museum. Those were remarkable, fun times. Valene is a Chico State legend!”
To this day, former students call or stop by the museum to emphasize how transformational Smith’s classes were, said Adrienne Scott, curator of the Valene L. Smith Museum for Anthropology. They say they never skipped a class, even if it was held late on a Friday, because one never knew where they might “travel” with Smith. Her extensive slide collection of landscapes, events, and experiences from around the globe augmented her knowledge of geography and anthropology to create an understanding of people’s daily lives. Scott, too, was continuously inspired by her.
“Her boundless energy and enthusiasm persisted well into her 90s,” Scott said. “She and I attended a few conferences together. I’m almost 40 years her junior and it was hard to keep up with her social pace. It was incredible to meet young women students from other countries who were inspired by her life story and work, who stood in line to meet her after her presentations.”
Acclaim for Smith’s work was extensive. She worked with the World Tourist Organization to create a model program of tourist development for the Islands of the Philippines, and she was awarded a Fulbright to teach for a year in Pakistan. She became a specialist in the ethnohistory of Alaskan indigenous peoples. To that end, she evaluated the government’s Headstart Programs in villages and remote regions of Alaska in the mid-1960s. She also spent numerous summers in Kotzebue (or Qikiqtaġruk) where she recorded the history of the local people, which encouraged younger generations to continue their education. With internationally acclaimed cinematographer and Chico State art professor Ira LaTour, Smith directed the film, The Legend of Three Stone Blades, depicting a local folktale. Latour and Smith went on to make more films together, and were honored at film festivals around the world.
Early in her tenure, Smith served on the planning committee to establish the University’s Museum of Anthropology. She saw the museum and the University’s Museum Studies Program as a vital opportunity to further the advancement and training of students and to cultivate a new generation of museum professionals, Nitzky said.
“It was always a dream of hers, and a pedagogical mission, to give back, and see her contributions to education and to the museum ‘pay off,’ as she would say, in the future of these students. When Valene became a benefactor of the museum, she helped transform the space and the program itself into a professionalized museum facility with the ample space for students to spread their wings,” said Nitzky. “Even later in life, she loved coming to the museum to see what we were up to and to meet the students involved in the Museum Studies Program. She really took pleasure in supporting and furthering the ‘teaching museum’ model for the museum.”
In 2010, she ensured her legacy with a testimonial bequest to the museum, which allowed it to expand in size and relocate to the heart of campus. Today, the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology serves thousands of visitors every year and has hosted exhibits ranging from soil science to Japanese kimonos to collaborative community pop-up exhibits promoting cultural awareness of the diversity of the human experience—just as Smith wanted. She retired in 1982 but continued teaching for another 15 years through the Faculty Early Retirement Program and remained active with the museum into her 90s.
Eddie Vela first met Valene while serving as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and said he had the privilege to work with her and the Anthropology Department to further develop and expand the museum.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Valene is her piercing bright blue eyes. Even as her eyesight began to fail, those bright blue eyes continued to serve as a beacon of an underlying positivity and generosity that did not falter,” Vela said. “A world traveler and productive scholar, countless students, the Department of Anthropology, the Chico State community, and the wider North State community have benefited enormously with her work and generosity.”
In addition to her academic contributions, she served on boards and organizations such as Soroptimists International, Enloe Hospital, Chico History Museum, and the University Foundation’s Board of Governors. She gave lavishly of her time and talents through informal lectures illustrated by her own videos and color slides to help the local community share in the outlook to be gained by traveling.
She was a member of the American Anthropological Association, American Ethnological Society, Anthropological Society of Washington, the Southwestern Anthropological Association, and the Society of Women Geographers. She was also a founding member of the Los Angeles Geographical Society, founding co-chair of the Northern California Geographical Society, and founding president of the Chico Museum Association.
“She inspired so many through her generosity and support and brought culture and understanding to Chico State and the community at large. She was passionate, full of life and adventure, and cared deeply about higher education and its impact on society,” said Ahmad Boura, vice president for University Advancement. “We will miss her dearly, but her legacy will continue through the work of the museum and her endowment.”
While earning her pilot’s license, she met and married her flight instructor, Ed Golay, in 1970. They were married until his death 10 years later, and in 1983, she married Stanley McIntyre, who died in 2000. She later married George Posey, and following his passing, she married Bob Benner, who preceded her in death in 2020. She is survived by Golay family members Glenn and Kathy Golay, and their children and grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be held on her birthday, February 14, 2024, at 11:30 a.m. at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology. Memorial contributions in her name may be directed to the museum, and condolences can also be sent care of the museum to be shared with family.
The University flag will be lowered February 14 in her honor.