Barry McNamara  |   Published May 16, 2017

He’d do it all again

Retiring Smolensky wouldn’t trade his 33 years as a Monmouth professor
  • Monmouth College political science professor Ira Smolensky recently completed his 33rd and final year of teaching at Monmouth.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.” – from the movie Field of Dreams

Monmouth College political science professor Ira Smolensky is well-versed when it comes to baseball, America and its politics and, certainly, the passage of time.

Smolensky recently completed his 33rd and final year of teaching at Monmouth, a career so rich in teachable moments and relationships that he says he wouldn’t trade it for the fame of life as a professional athlete.

“I followed the Brooklyn Dodgers, which was the first team to integrate,” he said. “That made me socially conscious about race.”

He continued: “There’s something beautiful about baseball – its aesthetics, the sounds and smells of the game. It relaxes me. I had a few good moments playing baseball. But if I had to sacrifice this career to be a major leaguer, I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather have this life.”

Smolensky learned about Monmouth through his president at Wabash (Ind.) College.

“It was covering four different areas in the discipline,” said Smolensky. “But I’m very much a generalist, so it was easier to come here for me than it would have been for some people.”

Smolensky recalled the ease of the transition at Monmouth for him and wife, Marge, which he credited to the College’s welcoming atmosphere. At the time, some of the key figures in creating that atmosphere were the late Richard “Doc” Kieft, as well as sociology professors Steve Buban and Carolyn Kirk.

“I was socialized by a number of people,” he said. “You could see right away that this was a very special place, and that the faculty and staff had a sense of pride in what they do. I was immediately welcomed, and I hit the ground running.”

Smolensky is so passionate about the teaching he did at Monmouth that he recalled an effort he made during the administration of then-President Richard Giese to minimize campus meetings, which “took away from what I’m supposed to be doing for the students.”

“I had an idea about streamlining committees,” he said. “I told President Giese about it, and he was receptive. He said, ‘Come up with a plan.’ But the ultimate result was they wanted to create a committee to study my plan, and that’s when I finally had enough of committees.”

During his more than three decades at Monmouth, Smolensky said he particularly enjoyed teaching his classes “Political Philosophy” and “Anarchism.”

“The essence of political philosophy is to speak usefully about justice – to speak idealistically and realistically about justice, simultaneously,” he said. “That’s the art of doing political philosophy.”

He had planned for “Anarchy” to be a one-time offering, but the class went so well that he promised Scott Hultgren ’12, son of former state Rep. David Hultgren, that he’d bring it back when he was a student at Monmouth.

Smolensky got to know the family while running one of Hultgren’s campaigns for the 94th District. He swore he’d never do that type of work again, but at the urging of the late Bill Campbell, Smolensky assisted Shawn Gillen’s 1997 Monmouth mayoral campaign. Gillen won, quickly moving to set up the city’s current governmental structure, with a city manager taking over many of the mayor’s former duties.

“My association with Bill Campbell enriched me,” said Smolensky, fondly recalling late-night political pow-wows at Campbell’s home in western Warren County. “Sometimes (late Congressman) Lane Evans would be there, and we’d all have great talks.”

Discussions about political issues were also at the heart of Great Decisions, the town-gown forum that meets for eight weeks at the start of the each spring semester.

“I promised (late government professor) Cecil Brett that I would keep it going,” Smolensky said of the program, which just completed its 37th year. “I feel like I took part in something special for the College and the community.”

But Smolensky said he is particularly fond of one non-teaching contribution to campus and community life.
“The best thing I did besides teaching was hire Farhat,” he said, referring to his department colleague, Farhat Haq, who just completed her 30th year on the faculty.

Around the time Haq was hired, Smolensky was one of the creators of a College-based “rotisserie league,” which is the old-school name for “fantasy baseball.”

“People travel thousands of miles to attend our draft in March,” he said. “It’s five to six hours of great drama.”

It’s fitting that Smolensky is so closely associated with a game, as it falls in line with one of his basic truths.

“I don’t like to work. I like to play,” he said. “If you dig students, teaching at Monmouth College is a great job.”
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