Published March 01, 2018

Remembering Ira Smolensky

Emeritus political science professor, who died March 1, called ‘The Great Encourager’
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Emeritus professor of political science Ira Smolensky, who transformed scores of Monmouth College students’ lives over a distinguished 33-year teaching career, died March 1. He was 69.

Smolensky remained active on campus after retiring last spring from full-time teaching. A longtime organizer of the College’s Great Decisions program, he led this semester’s first discussion in January, and he was also meeting regularly with political science students doing an independent study.

“I went to Homecoming last year because I felt this strong compulsion to see Ira,” said Amy Manning ’89, now a lawyer in Chicago. “He was absolutely one of a kind. This really hurts.”

Brad Nahrstadt ’89, whose gift to the Center for Science and Business named a room in Smolensky’s honor, said his life was changed by his former professor.

“I would call him ‘The Great Encourager,’” said Nahrstadt. “It didn’t matter what you thought or where you were in the political spectrum, he would encourage you to have your own ideas, your own thoughts, and to do what you wanted.”

Manning said: “His encouragement literally changed the course of my life. When I was feeling a great deal of restlessness my junior year and confided in Ira, he strongly encouraged me ‎to go to Washington Semester. … I ended up working for a congressman on the Hill, and during the course of that experience decided that my future was in law rather than medicine. Ira then helped shepherd me in that direction, and I have been grateful and will be grateful to him for the rest of my life. I credit Ira completely with the blessing of my career.”

“Ira’s massive impact on the lives of so many students is an important reminder of the role educators play in our lives,” said Kunal Kapoor ’97, CEO of Morningstar, Inc., who stayed in contact with Smolensky the past two decades. “I will remember him for his intellectual ferocity, everlasting humanity and sheer warmth. He was an amazing human being – the kind we all aspire to.”

‘A consummate teacher’

Nahrstadt, who also used his political science background to go into law, said that Smolensky set the wheels of his career in motion by setting up a meeting about law school and the profession even before Nahrstadt was officially enrolled as a Monmouth student.

“Here I was, this fresh-faced farm kid, and he thought he’d help me do something I wanted to do,” said Nahrstadt. “He went out on a limb for me. He literally changed the course of my life with that meeting.”

Nahrstadt went on to take nine classes from Smolensky.

“He was a consummate teacher in the truest sense of the word,” said Nahrstadt. “He was teaching you even when you didn’t think he was teaching – the way he interacted with people, the way he responded to people.”

Nahrstadt took Smolensky’s “Party Politics and Elections” class in the fall of 1988, a presidential election year. As part of the class, students were assigned to get involved with a campaign. A majority of the students worked for a local Republican, but Nahrstadt, a Democrat, expressed a desire to work on something bigger. Smolensky got Nahrstadt and a classmate involved in Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign.

In lieu of a final exam, Smolensky had students report on their experiences. Nahrstadt, stinging from Dukakis’s loss, wanted no part of it, but Smolensky persuaded him.

“’You have to come,’ he told me. ‘I’m not going to make you come, but I think you have to come. I want the rest of the class to know what you’ve done, and even though you lost, that you still have that passion for what you did.’

“And let me tell you, it was a painful class,” said Nahrstadt. “But that was part of his beauty, part of his genius. It was a great lesson – you can’t run and hide.”

Smolensky’s ‘unique elegance’

A member of the Jewish faith, Smolensky was known for what Manning called “a unique elegance” of interacting with those who had opposing views.

“He would gently engage, always respecting the person while challenging the logic of their position,” she said. “He was not afraid of opponents, once even befriending a known anti-Semite for the opportunity to create understanding.”

A former student who often held an opposing viewpoint of Smolensky’s was Nicole Figanbaum Suttle ’98.

“I was a huge Republican, and he was a huge Democrat, and we always had these big discussions,” she said. “He never changed my views, but he taught me so much.”

She said that teaching continued after her four years at Monmouth.

“He was very special to me, and we had this special bond. He and I talked twice a month, and I’ve been out of college now for 20 years. He knew my life, he knew my kids, he sent me Christmas cards and birthday cards.

“He was more than a professor; he was family.”

Like Suttle, Bishal Thapa ’96 maintained a close friendship with Smolensky in the two decades following his graduation.

“I still recall the first question Ira asked me in the ‘Politics in Film and Literature’ class in my freshman year,” said Thapa. “’Name two books or films,’ he said, ‘one which you consider overtly political, and the second which you consider to be political but is not obviously so.’ That question spawned a thousand conversations over a friendship that lasted more than two decades. It was only when I said the final goodbye that I realized that it had been a trick question all along – that question had no answer.

“That was Ira,” continued Thapa. “He set us on a course of inquiry knowing that someday we would uncover a world of truth that leads to justice, equality and prosperity for all. For me, the tragedy in Ira’s departure is not that he left unexpectedly but that he will never know how we solved the world’s problems.”

‘What is best about Monmouth’

When Smolensky was interviewed last year for a story about his retirement, he said other than teaching, his proudest achievement at Monmouth was adding Farhat Haq to the political science faculty. Haq, as well as her husband, Associate Dean of Students Mohsin Masood, were just as proud to call Smolensky and his wife, Marge, friends.

“To me, he was the essence of what is best about Monmouth College,” said Haq. “He was an extremely wise man, and wisdom is so rare these days. People get really into their silos and make quick judgments about others. Ira was completely opposite of that. He was open to different perspectives without jumping to conclusions. He had no sense of arrogance, and he met people where they were.”

Masood recalled that Smolensky was the first person he met in the United States.

“It was Aug. 22, 1990. He met me at the airport, and we’ve been friends ever since,” said Masood. “I’ve never had a better human being as a friend. I call him my first Jewish brother. … He was a teacher to me and to Farhat, and both of our boys took classes from him, so he was a teacher for our entire family.”

Haq and Masood both spoke of how Smolensky “supported students in all sorts of ways” – academically, socially and even, on occasion, financially.

“He was a real advocate for our students,” said Masood.

“He transformed students’ lives,” said Haq. “He took time to listen to students, and he cared about them.”

Smolensky often dodged the spotlight, but he was active in city politics, helping Shawn Gillen win Monmouth’s mayoral election in 1997.

“Ira was a trusted mentor, adviser and friend during my two years at Monmouth College, during the campaign for mayor, and during those four years as mayor,” said Gillen. “Ira had a gift for helping young people figure out what their passion is and how to make a career of it. He certainly did in my case, and I owe so much to him for that.”

Smolensky came to Monmouth in 1984, two years after receiving his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He also earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at Rutgers. He was a past recipient of the College’s Hatch Award for Distinguished Teaching.

He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years and by their son, 2000 Monmouth graduate Matt Smolensky, who lives in Ventura, Calif.

McGuire & Davies Funeral Home in Monmouth is in charge of the arrangements:
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