Mentor. Dedicated. Pillar. Game Changer. Treasure.
So say some of the former students of legendary Indiana University Professor George M. Smerk, who will gather July 6 on the IU campus to celebrate the 80th birthday of the man many public transit industry leaders say launched their careers and transformed the public transportation industry.
“Dr. Smerk embodies the spirit of all that’s good in public transportation,” said APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy. “He instilled in us the belief that we in the industry do good things every day. We improve the quality of life for millions of people. What we do matters. This is noble work. He inspired us, and he inspired me to be where I am today.”
Smerk’s multi-faceted career in public transportation spans four decades and encompasses several layers: his impact on individual students and the industry, his research and scholarship, and his role as a longtime agency executive and board member. During interviews for this profile, industry leaders who studied under Smerk were uniformly expansive and appreciative—sharing anecdotes, recounting lessons learned, and describing his exacting standards.
Margarita Gagliardi, vice president of transit planning, Urban Engineers, described Smerk’s influence on her career and life. “On my ‘reverence scale,’ first is God, second is my mother, and third is Dr. Smerk,” she said. “That’s how much respect and admiration I have for him.”
Smerk’s 40-year career as an educator began in 1963, when he was an assistant professor of transportation at the University of Maryland. In 1966, he joined the faculty at Indiana University (where he previously earned his doctorate in business administration) as associate professor of transportation. In 1969, he was named a professor of transportation at IU’s Kelley School of Business and founded the university’s Institute for Urban Transportation. He retired from IU in 2003.
William Volk, managing director, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (CUMTD), Urbana, IL, said Smerk “opened the door to a pretty good career for me. I’ve been here [at CUMTD] for over 39 years. That’s the longest time in the industry of any general manager serving in one position. I’m forever grateful.”
Paul Ballard, chief executive officer, Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, describes a similar experience, saying that Smerk helped him transition from student life to a career. “I was the first general manager of the transit system in Bloomington, which Dr. Smerk helped get started, at the age of 23. I hadn’t even graduated yet,” Ballard said. “His support and encouragement helped me every step of the way. This was a huge start for me.”
Melaniphy, who got his start in public transportation as a bus driver for the IU campus bus system (which Smerk helped create), remembered a lesson he learned in one of Smerk’s classroom lectures.
“I had my sandwiches, my drink, my radio all set up in the front of my bus,” Melaniphy said. “One day during class, he was talking about the importance of professionalism, and he mentioned one bus driver—who he didn’t name, of course—who was driving around campus in a Hawaiian shirt and had the front of his bus all cluttered up with sandwiches, drinks, and a radio. He never said my name, but I knew he was talking about me! The lesson, which I never forgot, was to be professional every day. Present yourself and your public transit company in a professional way. Take pride in your work.”
Perry Maull, operations manager of the Indiana University Campus Bus Service, described a lifelong lesson he learned as a “Smerkie,” the nickname many former students call themselves: “He taught us to do our homework. Preparation is the key to getting things done.”
Smerk was a consummate professional, said Martin Sennett, general manager, Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corporation, Lafayette, IN. “If you went to central casting to find the quintessential professor, it would be George Smerk. He wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbow, and often a sweater vest—even in 80 or 90 degree weather; a tie or bow tie; and always had a pipe. I’m not sure he ever lit it in class, but it was always there.”
Stephen Bland, principal, TransforMotion, said Smerk set high standards in other ways as well. “I remember turning in my first writing assignment. I thought it was definitely A material. I got the paper back with a C on it. I got the C because I spelled ‘buses’ with two Ss. He told me it was an A paper, and he was pretty sure I would eventually get an A in his class. However, he would not tolerate bad spelling or bad grammar—especially when it came to transit words. To this day, I cringe when I see anyone spell buses ‘busses’!”
Ahead of the Curve
One lasting lesson Gagliardi recalled is Smerk’s forward-looking commitment to customers.
“One of the most important things he did was show us how to walk in the transit customers’ shoes—how to understand the issues from their perspective—issues like frequency, quality, safety,” she said. “Those kinds of things were not in textbooks. But he also taught us to have a sense of responsibility from a financial perspective.”
In addition, she said, “the buzzwords now—like sustainability and energy conservation—he was teaching us that in the early 1970s.”
Smerk also believed that public transportation represented a “high level of public service,” according to Ballard, an idea Volk and Sennett describe as “institutionalizing” public transit organizations. “He encouraged us to make public transportation as important as police, fire, and public works—to make it a necessary part of communities and people’s lives,” Volk said. “Dr. Smerk saw public transit in a much different way—especially at the peak of the car industry in the 1960s and 1970s.”
As an educator, Smerk had an influence that far exceeded his one-on-one contact with students and the physical confines of his classroom. Sennett described Smerk’s “ripple effect” as an educator: “He got so many of us interested in going into public transportation. Then we got other people interested in the industry. That’s the ripple effect of a great teacher. You never know how big or how far out the ripples go.”
Bland agreed: “I am quite certain that he is the sole reason that dozens of very accomplished professionals are now in public transit and not some other endeavor.”
What’s more, Volk said, Smerk was an unabashed advocate of public transit. “He was one of the few academicians who wholeheartedly supported public transportation. He was something of an ‘outlier’ in that regard,” Volk said, noting that Smerk could be “somewhat irreverent” and candid.
An Industry Icon
Smerk’s academic contributions to public transportation tell only part of his story. He served as the Indiana governor’s representative on the board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District from 1977 to 2007, was active in the Indiana Transportation Association and served as its executive director from 1986-1987, and worked with the Transportation Research Board and many of its committees. He was named the university’s director of transportation in 1992.
He was a frequent speaker and presenter at APTA conferences and meetings and, in 2006, a group of his former students created the George M. Smerk Scholarship with the American Public Transportation Foundation.
Smerk is the author or co-author of six landmark books on urban mass transportation, public transit management, and the federal role in public transportation, and is one of the editors of the Encyclopedia of North American Railroads.
“He did more than teach transportation; he helped create it. We’ve all had teachers who didn’t know what they were talking about. That’s not George Smerk,” Sennett said.
But perhaps inspiration is George Smerk’s most enduring legacy. Maull said, “His influence on me spans everything that I am.”