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"If you can perceive beauty, then for you the world is a beautiful place. And you are going to make it better," Ralph J. Smith, 80, a longtime Stanford electrical engineering professor, used to tell his students. Smith, who died of cancer on Feb. 11 at Stanford University Hospital, saw electrical engineering as a way to improve the quality of people's lives.
"We provide ways in which living can be made more complete and better. The engineer contributes to the health, standard of living and general welfare of all," Smith once said.
Born in Herman, Neb., Smith moved with his family to Southern California, where he attended high school. He earned B.A., M.A. and E.E. degrees from the University of California-Berkeley.
Smith's relationship with Stanford began in 1942, when he began work on a doctorate in electrical engineering. After earning his Ph.D. in 1945, he joined the faculty of San Jose State College and became head of the engineering department, which he helped found. Smith also served as chairman of San Jose State's division of engineering, mathematics and aeronautics.
In the 1950s Smith served on San Jose's City Planning Commission, initially as a member and later as chairman. In 1956 he was a technical adviser on electronics and industrial electricity at the Philippines School of Arts and Trades. His work was part of a contract between Stanford and the Philippine Department of Education. Smith taught summer courses at Stanford for several years before becoming a full professor in 1957. In 1965, he spent several weeks in South Vietnam surveying the state of engineering education there.
Smith was particularly well known for his textbooks, which include Engineering as a Career, published by McGraw Hill, and Circuits, Devices and Systems and Electronics: Circuits and Devices, both published by John Wiley and Sons. His textbooks were translated into several languages, including Chinese and Portuguese.
"Ralph was a very prominent author of textbooks for electrical and general engineering," remembers his close friend Bob Eustis, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Stanford. "He at one time was the most widely read author of all engineering books."
Eustis described Smith as an excellent teacher and adviser and credited him with coming up with the idea for a scholarship that would recognize not only outstanding undergraduate engineering students but their mentors as well. In the early 1960s, then Provost Frederick E. Terman approached faculty members about ideas for sharing profits from his own books. Smith suggested that Terman honor engineering students and invite them to lunch with their favorite high school teachers. The program still exists, and these teachers come from as far as Japan, Europe and South America, Eustis said.
Smith retired from Stanford in 1982 after serving on the faculty for 26 years. To honor his contributions to the university, a scholarship was established in his name to support outstanding coterminal students in the electrical engineering department. The Ralph J. Smith Scholarship will now recognize students who demonstrate promise in teaching the discipline.
"He loved his work here, and he looked forward every day to going to school to teach," said his widow, Louise Smith. "He felt he was so lucky to have been in this area in this time, because of all the things happening in electrical engineering in Silicon Valley." She added that when Stanford celebrated its centennial in 1991, her husband proudly acknowledged that he had been associated with the university for half of its history.
In addition to Louise, who lives at Stanford, Smith leaves sons Kent of Grass Valley and Dan of Walnut Creek; daughters Nancy Anderson of Grass Valley and Elaine Culverwell of Fremont; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Plans for a memorial service are pending. Donations may be made to the Ralph J. Smith Scholarship, Department of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, Panama Street #113, Stanford, CA 94305.
By Elaine Ray