Honorary degree recipients share their stories: the last in a series

By Middlebury Campus

Maxine Atkins Smith, civil rights activist

She knew Martin Luther King, Jr. when they were both undergraduates and she was with him on the night that he was assassinated. But if you ask Maxine Atkins Smith about the Middlebury portion of her college years, the first thing that comes to mind is, “It was cold.” Just 19 years old with a fresh college diploma in hand from Spelman College, Smith came to Vermont to attend language school in 1949, and completed a Masters in French from Middlebury in 1951. An honorary degree recipient for Middlebury’s upcoming 2011 Commencement, Smith was previously awarded with an outstanding alumnae award from the College.

Courtesy of Middlebury CollegeSmith is best known for her career as a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) civil rights activist, which spans the earliest rumblings of the Civil Rights Movement to the present. Throughout all she has been a champion for education, with 24 years of service to the Memphis Board of Education. Until a friend encouraged her to run for a seat on the board, Smith “had never been interested in politics on the individual level, but thought of this as education,” as something different. Before Smith the school board had never had a black member, yet despite the fact that only one-third of the voting public was Black, Smith was elected.
Smith was present at all the major movements in the Civil Rights Movement, but it is something that she only lightly takes credit for.

“I’m blessed to have been born when I was born and in the thrust of all the movements of the 50s and the 60s and to be put in a place to do something about those issues,” said Smith. “I got so much more from the movement than I had to give. When I came out of Spelman and Middlebury I was not yet wise to the ways of the world, but both liberal arts educations had taught me about living.”

When she graduated from Spelman with a degree in biology, an interest in dentistry and the love of languages that led her to Middlebury, activism had yet to show itself as part of Smith’s journey. However, if you look carefully enough, you can see earlier moments of revolutionary dissent. Smith’s first experience with racism came when she was eight years old and was reprimanded by a White hospital worker for addressing her father by the term mister when she asked to be shown to his room. During that era blacks were not privileged to salutations.

When prompted, Smith will rattle off stories of every year of her life in perfect chronological fashion. In 1951 she graduated from Middlebury and began teaching French at black colleges in the South. In 1953 she married and continued teaching until 1955. In 1956 she gave birth to her only son. And it was not until 1957 that her work with the NAACP fell into her lap. At that time Smith already held a Masters from Middlebury, but a dear friend who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley encouraged her to return to school with her at the University of Memphis. They were both rejected.

“We were not good enough for Memphis and that was solely based on race,” said Smith.

That news went public and the next thing Smith knew, the NAACP had called the two young women to serve on their board. She joined as a volunteer.

“I think they asked us because really they needed some rejuvenating and they didn’t have any women on the board. The NAACP was a group of old men and it was a solid passion developed from me to them. I saw the passion in their eyes and I was honored to sit at their feet and feel their thirst. I couldn’t get away from it,” said Smith. “I’m very hands on, you could say. I never got away from the NACCP until I retired in 1996 and I’m still not truly away from it.”

Smith’s first project with the NACCP was to boost black voter registration in Memphis and greater Shelby County. When she began fewer than 10,000 blacks were registered to vote there. She brought that number to over 50,000 in the next couple of years. Throughout 1960 and 1961 she coordinated sit-ins and boycotts. During the summer of 1961 the NAACP got its first 13 black students into first grade classes in Memphis’ formerly white-only public schools. Each day, she literally took three of those students to their school and walked them into their classrooms and picked them up at the end of the day, supported by a police chief whom she credits with “protecting those children though he did not believe in desegregation.”

In 1962 she became the executive secretary of the NAACP and in the coming years helped to “bring Memphis to its feet and change state laws. [By the end of the decade,] we had broken down the legal barriers of segregation.”

Last year the University of Memphis finally accepted Smith by awarding her an honorary degree.

“I had no malice in my heart because I can joke about it now,” she quipped.

When accepting the award Smith “jovially told them that it took me 57 years to get this degree. I’m not quite that bad of a student.”

She sees the award as a measure of progress. Ironically, she had long since overseen the establishment in an institutional capacity through her work with the county’s education board.

“It takes a different sort of push from the individual to make things better for not only himself but also for the world. They have to look at the society they live in, not only at home,” said Smith. “You have to have compassion for others. There remain a lot of less-fortunates in our world. It’s not hard to find. We just need to be aware of the needs that surround us, locally, nationwide and worldwide and make it a point to do something.

“We have to make the very best with what we have. We still have a lot of inequities in our country. Whatever area, at whatever level — we need some of you to go rid our world of problems that are man-made, because those are the only ones that we can fix,” continued Smith. “We come from different worlds, but we’re still all people and we all have an obligation to repay a little bit of our rent in this universe that we haven’t paid.”

Smith says she paid her dues by fighting for equal access to education and civil rights for all, but she encourages every student to find a way to do something that fits with their talents and ideals. “Do something for somebody to the best of your individual ability,” she said. “Your gift may be different than your neighbor’s but we all have a gift. Use yours to heal the harm that still exists.”

Chris Waddell ’91, paralympian and philantrohpist

Sometimes, life does not go the way we plan. Sometimes, the universe throws us a curve ball. But that does not mean we have to give up what we love, give up on our dreams. There is no better example than Chris Waddell ’91.
In 1987, Waddell entered Middlebury as a first-year on the Division I ski team.

“Obviously I wanted a good school,” said Waddell. “But I also wanted the ability to ski Division I. Skiing is sort of my first love.”

Waddell has been skiing for as long as he can remember.


“I grew up in New England and have a lot of energy, and I just wanted to ski,” said Waddell, “There are pictures of me and our family dog outside in the front yard and I’m skiing. I don’t remember any of it, but my parents said I wanted to do it. And it was freezing cold out and that didn’t seem to bother me.”

He never lost that passion for the winter sport, even after tragedy occurred.

It was the first day of Christmas break of Waddell’s sophomore year at Middlebury. Waddell was skiing with his brother at his home mountain preparing for that day’s training.

“I wasn’t going very fast,” said Waddell. “I wasn’t doing anything very interesting.”

But there was the unexpected turn of events: Waddell fell and his ski popped off in an unconventional manner. He broke his back, making him a paraplegic and putting him in a wheelchair. One would think such a horrible disaster would put an end to Waddell’s skiing career, but that was not the case.

“I started to ski again two days short of a year during the middle of exams,” said Waddell. “I started skiing for the first time again at the Snow Bowl. Friends of Middlebury Skiing actually bought my first monoski.”
Waddell continued to be a part of the Middlebury Ski team through his senior year when he was captain.

After Middlebury, Waddell went on to compete for 15 years in both alpine skiing and wheelchair racing, joining the U.S. Paralympic team, where he found great success.  After competing in seven Olympic games — four winter and three summer — Waddell became the most decorated male Paralympic skier, winning 12 medals in his four winter games.

Now, Waddell has concentrated his efforts on running his foundation, One Revolution.

“We want to turn the way the world sees people with disabilities by approaching it from a very universal way,” said Waddell. “Show them we’re more similar than different. We’re aiming at maintaining a quality of life.

“Our opportunity and talent is in trying to change public perception,” Waddell continued. “I feel that there’s a lot of presumptions [about the disabled] that persist as presumptions, and if they persist long enough they become fact. I want to be able to present stories in such a way so people don’t see the person on the screen as different, but see themselves different. The idea is that hopefully we get closer and closer.”

One Revolution attempts to alter public perception in two ways. One is through videos that show how disabled persons can become accomplished despite their difficulties.

What better story than Waddell’s own? In addition to his skiing achievements, in 2009 Waddell became the first paraplegic to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro unassisted. Waddell has just finished a documentary on his climb, One Revolution; its tagline is as follows: “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

The second is through an educational program called “Nametags,” which addresses social labels.

“How much of our time at school do we spend trying to fit in?” asked Waddell. “It’s a risk we run in missing out on the thing we do really well, our potential genius, by trying to be like everyone else.”

Possibly the reason Waddell believes so strongly in a strong school community is because of his experience at Middlebury.

“I had my skiing accident when I was at Midd and came back in a chair the spring of my sophomore year,” said Waddell. “Ultimately the transition was significantly easier than it should have been because of the way the school conducted itself. The school pretty much took a vast campus on the top of a hill and made it accessible which is pretty amazing.

“Some of what I didn’t know at that point was I was a freshman in college and I didn’t think I mattered to the school and it would have been very easy for them to say that this isn’t an accessible school, and they didn’t. They said, ‘You’re part of our family,’ and that was really amazing for me.”

After his accident Waddell received support from both students and faculty.

“There was a huge outpouring of the community which made it really easy for me,” said Waddell. “What the school didn’t do my friends did. I had a great time at Midd and still have great friends from there, members of faculty, deans and obviously classmates.”

Now, 20 years after graduating, Middlebury is reaching out to Waddell once again. He will not only receive an honorary degree, but will also be this year’s commencement speaker. When asked how he felt about being given this position, Waddell responded: “Honored, humbled, and a little bit nervous.”

Edward Rubin, geneticist

Edward Rubin does not have a long commute to work. From his home in Berkley, Calif., he simply rides his bike up a hill to his job: his laboratory.

Rubin is a geneticist whose lab works on the well-known Human Genome Project, sequencing the genomes not only of humans but now of plants, microbes and animals that have relevance to energy and greenhouse gasses.

“We are interested in organisms that take CO2 out of the atmosphere,” said Rubin. “There are plants and microbes that live in the ocean that are very efficient.

“My background was as a human geneticist taking care of patients with genetic diseases,” said Rubin. “Those are people who have freaky mutations in their DNA that leads to diseases. Then I became involved in the Human Genome Project.”

Courtesy of DOE Joint Genome Project

Rubin always had a passion for science. He attended UC San Diego to study physics.

“[But] then I took a course, Bio for Physicists, when I was a college student,” said Rubin. “I had a charismatic professor and became interested in DNA and was really fascinated by it. And it’s continued through my scientific career. […] It’s a bit like joining the mob, joining the mafia. I got hooked by DNA when I was a college student and that hook never came out. I sort of had a passion for DNA which I never lost.”

Although Rubin did not attend Middlebury, he is still connected with the College.  Rubin will receive his Middlebury honorary degree at this year’s graduation as his son, Ben Rubin ’11, receives his own Middlebury diploma.

“I like to be able to make fun of Ben,” said Rubin. “He worked so hard over four years, and all I had to do was show up and get my degree.”

Rubin also has a daughter, Rachel, who is currently getting a graduate degree in public policy and public relations at George Washington University.

“I think Middlebury’s a great place,” said Rubin. “It’s a wonderful place to study science, as well as learn languages, and I did visit and give a lecture and I was enormously impressed by the quality of the faculty and their commitment to training the next generation of scientists.

“I went to a big university,” continued Rubin. “I’m jealous of the science education that Ben got at Middlebury. It’s much more. The teachers cared much more about his education.”

Size was not really a consideration in Rubin’s college search. In fact, he admits that it was really one thing that drew him to UC San Diego.

“I went to UC San Diego purely because I was interested in surfing,” said Rubin. “I grew up in New York City and I learned how to surf, and I read a surfing magazine that talked about the beaches in San Diego. I went to surf. My parents thought I was lost.”

And just as his passion for DNA has stayed with him through the years, he has never lost his love for catching a good wave.

“I’m an avid surfer,” said Rubin. “I surf a lot, I take lots of surfing trips. I surf a couple days a week.”