Historian Leonard S. Smith’s “incredibly lucky” life included 29 years of teaching at CLU, from 1969 to 1998, and the publication of books on Lutheran intellectual history and historiography in his last years. In 2009, he and his wife, Sharon, celebrated 50 years of marriage and gave thanks again for four children, their spouses and four grandchildren. He died on Aug. 8 at the age of 81.
“Most things in life happen to you, and you don’t decide your own fate, usually,” Smith said in an interview last year. He added, “Myself, I believe that the good Lord looks out after drunks, babies and Leonard Smith…. Somebody’s been looking out after me. Most people feel that. I’ve felt it my whole life.”
Because his father was the Rev. A. Leonard Smith, pastor of a big Swedish Lutheran congregation in tiny Stanton, Iowa, the younger Leonard had contemplated becoming a Lutheran pastor. Although he didn’t take that direction, he mentioned it to the president of small, two-year Luther College in Wahoo, Neb., who advised him that he therefore needed three years of German, two years of Greek and a history major.
“That decided my life,” he said.
In the Army in 1954 after four years of college, Smith became the clerk responsible for correspondence at the headquarters of his infantry division in Germany. His interest in German culture and history deepened.
His dissertation adviser at Washington University in St. Louis helped him to get a two-year Fulbright Fellowship to study from 1962 to 1964 at the University of Gottingen, “which at that time was the best university in Germany in the field of history and had the best library.” Smith conducted archival research for his dissertation in both West and East Berlin and communist East Germany.