Professor Kirk R. Smith, close friend, mentor, and pioneering environmental health scientist, passed away unexpectedly on Monday, June 15th, 2020 at home with his family. This news has been hard to process; a remembrance of Kirk follows.
I don’t know where to begin, how to start. So I’ll start at our beginning.
I emailed Dr. Smith, as I insisted on calling Dr. Smith then, out of the blue in July 2006. I was applying for a Fulbright in Nepal and proposed an air pollution assessment in a few rural villages. I needed help identifying a local field partner and knew Dr. Smith had worked in Nepal on similar issues. I had no sense of the scale of his work, knew only a little of his renown, and had enough youthful hubris to reach out blindly. Still, I honestly expected no response.
To adapt (or bastardize, you pick) a mantra of Dr. Smith’s 1, and the motto of his research group: You don’t get what you expect; sometimes, you get the unexpected. Dr. Smith wrote back a few hours after my random inquiry — succinct and helpful, my first exposure to the notorious slash-k 2. He introduced me to Amod Pokhrel — at the time, a student in EHS — who helped me find a field partner and who has been a friend and colleague since. My first experience of one of Dr. Smith’s many gifts: his generosity of time and thought. One short act – three lines in total, 2 of which were email addresses – opened a door for me and lay the groundwork for lifelong friendships and collaborations.
About a year later, Dr. Smith and I met in person in Nepal, over lukewarm chai, while I was on my Fulbright. As is often the case, this meeting was (1) after he had given a lecture and (2) before he had to dash off to another meeting. I remember being struck then, as ever, by his warmth, his willingness to interact despite being very busy, his quirky sense of humor, and his intellectual rigor. He encouraged me to consider a PhD at Berkeley. We had about a half hour talk and then went to find cabs: it was pouring, otherwise I am confident he would have walked or taken the bus or a tuk-tuk.
We were infrequently in touch for the next year. I applied to the EHS PhD program at Berkeley in late 2009, got in, and moved into an apartment in Oakland in July of 2010. At some point in that first few months, I called Dr. Smith’s home, up Panoramic Way, and Joan answered. Joan scared me just as much as Dr. Smith in those days. I asked for Dr. Smith, and she gave him the phone, saying something along the lines of, “Will you please tell him to stop with this Dr. Smith nonsense?” It was just loud enough that I could hear it, and it worked: ‘Dr. Smith’ (eventually) gave way to ‘Kirk’. An example, one of many, highlighting Joan’s wit, grace, warmth, and intellect.
Between then and now, there are a lot of stories — some are mine, but so many more are Kirk’s. We know he was never shy with a story. I never tired of them (okay, yeah: sometimes I tired of them).
I had the privilege of working directly with Kirk – first as a doctoral student, then as a postdoc – for the last decade, on small and large projects of all types, all over the globe. He was the greatest advocate for his students I have ever seen, and our working relationship was the best I have had. I learned much watching Kirk move through the world, with his grace, wit, inquisitiveness, and, when needed, prickly sharpness. Our friendship grew into something deep and constant. I’d like to think I gave to Kirk a thousandth of what he gave to me, but that is unlikely.
My last in-person visit with Kirk was in mid-February, about six weeks after we moved from Oakland to Atlanta, and ten years since we made the opposite journey, from Atlanta to Oakland. Mid-February, just before the pandemic obliterated routine and instated an era of uncertainty. Just six weeks after I had started a new job.
Kirk asked me to return to Berkeley to lecture in two of his classes: one an air pollution and health course that he and I launched with John Balmes, and the other his Environmental Health breadth course, which he was in the process of reimagining. Always reimagining, always improving.
We met a few times during that short visit, between other obligations. Kirk offered advice about new jobs, which he said he borrowed from Joanie, and his own supportive words; we discussed ongoing and potential work together; we ended the day with a nice Korean meal. It was a cool, drizzly Berkeley evening. I remember walking after that meal, full of bibimbap and nostalgia, heavy with memories (and with rice). The next morning’s lecture, in the air pollution and health class, was small, intimate, fun; Kirk shuffled out early to go up to Bear Valley with his family. When class wrapped, I dropped some things off at Maria’s desk, wandering by Kirk’s office, wondering when I would see it again.
I never expected that visit to be the last time we would meet in person or see each other; nor did I expect our lives to be turned upside down by a new, emergent public health threat enabled, in some ways, by the same time- and space-folding habits that enabled Kirk and I (and so many others) to do our work. I never expected to form a deep bond with such an important, transformative thinker, and certainly never expected to count him among my closest confidants, mentors, and dearest friends. I didn’t expect to hear the words “Kirk” and “stroke” and “cardiac arrest” strung together a few months later.
I expected our plans for new studies – that we discussed, just days ago – to bear fruit through our collective efforts. I expected that we would carry on for at least another decade of work, of stories, of excitement, of quibbles, of jetlag and food poisoning, of kids and grandkids, of small and large adventure, of gentle silence and enthusiastic proclamation, of our Kirk.
Sometimes, you don’t get what you expect, or what you inspect. Sometimes, you get the unexpected.