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Julian Smith sings at Savage Club concert

Julian Smith sings "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear," accompanied by Bill Cowdery on piano, at the Savage Club of Ithaca's Reunion Weekend concert in Statler Auditorium June 5. (See video. Photo: Joe Wilensky.

The adventures (and many talents) of Julian C. Smith

The entertainer

"How old are you again?"

"Ninety-five," replied Professor Emeritus Julian Smith. "Can't you tell?" he asked, making a comically pitiful face, hunching his shoulders up to his chin so that his neck disappeared, and affecting a feeble wobble. He then straightened up and chuckled.

The next night found Smith onstage in the Statler Auditorium in black tie and singing before a packed house of alumni attending Reunion 2014. Accompanied by fellow Savage Club member Bill Cowdery on the grand piano, Smith sang "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear," a 1959 song about a lecherous old man trying to ply a young girl of 17 with drink. Smith had composed a new verse -- an addendum from the point of view of the girl. "Have some Viagra, my dear." The audience roared with shocked laughter.

Later, another Savage Club member remarked, "No one but Julian could get away with that song."

The benefits of advanced age also include free time to reflect on the deeper questions of life, and Smith has been busy on that front for quite some time, too, writing a seven-chapter memoir of his early life, which he workshops with two writing groups at Kendal, his residential retirement community in Ithaca. He's also put down on paper his late-in-life loss of religious faith in an essay, "The View From 94." And there are his comical ditties, characterized by outrageous and farcical topics and impressively difficult rhymes -- the Viagra song and half a dozen others, which he performs in rotation at Savage Club concerts that raise money for local children's arts programs.

A charmed childhood

Julian Smith's yearbook photo, 1941

Julian Smith's photo in the 1941 Cornellian. Photo: provided.

The 95 years of Julian Smith's life so far have been charmed, you could say. Born into a wealthy and accomplished family in Canada, he grew up in a 10-bedroom house with a solarium, where his mother had a lemon tree, and during the summers in another large house on Lake Memphremagog, near Magog. His family employed cooks and chauffeurs and nurses. He went to the best schools, discovered a talent for math and science and English, had ambition to be at or near the top of his class, earned very high marks, graduated from high school with the highest exam scores in his province, and was given every opportunity to pursue his various interests (stamp collecting, golf, chemistry).

"In the workshop in the basement of our house," recalls Smith in his memoir, "my father had encouraged me to set up chemical experiments, buying me acids, bases and some more exotic chemicals like solid iodine that were available at drug stores in the 1930s.

"I also had a Bunsen burner and a gas-fired rack on which beakers and dishes could be heated. One Saturday afternoon Tom Harvie and I were mixing and heating various chemicals in a porcelain dish 'to see what would happen.' We had lots of curiosity and daring, and very little sense. After one mixture showed no interesting activity, I grabbed the bottle of acetone and said, 'I wonder what this will do,' and poured acetone into the dish."

The resulting fire was extinguished in the nick of time by the family butler, Darby.

A Cornell education, and career

There was never any question that Smith would attend Cornell. Both his parents were Cornellians, as well as a great-uncle and a few cousins, and his older brother Joslyn was an upperclassman, president of his fraternity and captain of the ski team by the time Smith arrived in Ithaca as a freshman in 1936.

Julian Smith as an assistant Cornell professor in 1951

Julian Smith in 1951 as an assistant professor at Cornell. Photo: provided.

During his first week at Cornell, Smith attended a freshman event at the president's house, where President Edmund Ezra Day pointed out that he, too, was a freshman of sorts, since it was his first year in the role. Smith auditioned for the Glee Club and was made assistant accompanist.

He did very well academically, graduating second in his class and subsequently earning a master's degree in chemical engineering from Cornell the next year.

Smith accepted a job offer from DuPont, where he worked for several years (including on the Manhattan Project, making fluorine and distilling uranium hexafluoride), before returning to Cornell as an assistant professor in 1946. He retired in 1986 after 40 years of service on the faculty, including serving as director of the School of Chemical Engineering from 1975-83 and director of continuing education for the College of Engineering from 1965-73.

He also co-authored (with Warren McCabe) a textbook, "Unit Operations of Chemical Engineering," which is still in print today and has sold over a half a million copies.

Mike Shuler, the Samuel Eckert Professor of Chemical Engineering and a member of the Cornell faculty since 1974, explains Smith's considerable legacy in the college: "He assumed the role [of department chair] in a particularly turbulent time in the department, as it was evolving into a modern department of chemical engineering. He guided the school toward the future -- where research and graduate education played an increasingly important role -- while still maintaining the school's traditional dedication to undergraduate instruction. Many of the older faculty members were uncomfortable with the change.

Julian Smith as director of school of chemical engineering in 1981

Julian Smith as the director of the School of Chemical Engineering in 1981. Photo: Jon Reis Photography.

"Julian could walk the narrow line to do what needed to be done while maintaining the best of the former culture. He had the trust of all of the faculty."

Shuler also remembers Smith having "a remarkable sense of humor -- often slightly understated -- but used with great skill to make key points."

Another colleague, Claude Cohen, the Fred H. Rhodes Professor of Chemical Engineering, was the first non-chemical engineer hired into the faculty, by Smith, in 1977. Such a hiring was not the norm.

"I believe only Julian could have done it," Cohen reflects, "because he was recognized (based on his textbook … and his consultant activities) as 'Mr. Chemical Engineer,' and he had the trust of the faculty. We now have four more faculty members with non-ChemE degrees expanding the frontiers of the field and a very vibrant department."

Julian Smith sings at Savage Club concert

Julian Smith sings a new verse to the song "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" -- "Have some Viagra, my dear ..." at the Savage Club's concert in Statler Auditorium June 5. "No one but Julian could get away with that song," a fellow Savage Club member remarked afterward. Photo: Joe Wilensky.

A man of many talents

Off campus, Smith lived a life full of service and activity. He and his wife, Joan (who died in 2003), raised their three children. And Smith was a valued consultant to DuPont for decades, and to various government agencies. In Ithaca, he has served in leadership roles with the Ithaca Opera Association, the United Way and the Cerebral Palsy Association, to name just a few; he also was an elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, where he sang in the choir for almost 50 years.

His stamp collection grew to include all but one stamp ever issued by the Canadian government. "I shouldn't tell you how much I paid for my most expensive stamp," he said, before revealing the sum: $60,000. After owning it for many years, he sold it for $61,500. When he'd tired of collecting and exhibiting his stamps, he turned to land snail shells, later donating that collection to the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca.

Still standing, still singing

Smith, who says he will perform at next year's Reunion "if I can still walk and stand and sing," credits his longevity to a series of things: "My parents could afford top medical care. I was not badly hurt when I totaled my car at age 19. I played a lot of golf, and no extreme or contact sports. I've always accepted the inevitable without too much fuss. I never smoked -- well, maybe a few cigarettes. But I think mostly," he concludes, "it has been a matter of good fortune."

Members of the Savage Club perform during Reunion Weekend concert

Julian Smith, visible at center, with other members of the Savage Club of Ithaca during the group's Reunion Weekend concert in Statler Auditorium June 5. Photo: Joe Wilensky.

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