Charlene L. Smith, 1937-2022, Passes Away

Photograph: Charlene Smith.Washburn University School of Law is sad to report that Emeritus Professor of Law Charlene Smith passed away on Thursday, February 24, 2022.

Professor Charlene L. Smith taught at Washburn University School of Law for over twenty years, from 1982-2003 and 2007-2008. Charlene was born in Colorado and received her undergraduate degree, as well as a master's degree in history, from the University of Denver. She taught history at Lea College in Albert Lea, Minnesota, before moving to Minneapolis-St. Paul and obtaining her Juris Doctor degree from Hamline University School of Law. After graduation, the Minnesota Attorney General hired Charlene to head the Human Rights Division. A particularly noteworthy case she successfully shepherded was a sexual harassment complaint filed by women working for a mining company in northern Minnesota, which resulted in the class action case of Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. and was the basis of the movie "North Country."

Being a teacher at heart, Charlene then attended Temple University Beasley School of Law, where she earned an LL.M. (Masters of Law) as a Law Teaching Fellow. During her national job search for a law teaching position, Charlene had offers from several law schools. A competition to hire Charlene resulted in some law schools adding various benefits to "sweeten the pot." This included one law school offering to pay her son's college tuition if he attended that university's undergraduate program, in addition to another school offering a new snow blower. However, it was Dean Carl Monk's offer of the first harvest of asparagus each spring from Professor Gregory Pease's garden, along with paying one-half of Charlene's moving expenses, that sealed the deal for Washburn. Through the years, many faculty members benefited by eating Professor Pease's asparagus, which Charlene expertly prepared, along with many of her gourmet dishes.

Charlene's teaching assignment included Torts, Legal Methods, Legal Research and Writing and a torts seminar. She also became the coordinator of Ahrens Tort Seminar for nine years, bringing many international torts scholars, professors, attorneys, judicial officers and government officials to Washburn. One example of Charlene's creativity and innovation as a law professor was using distance (remote) learning for the Ahrens Tort Seminar in 1999 and 2000, long before distance or remote learning was being used in academia. For those two years the seminar was taught at Washburn, as well as at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. The guest faculty spent one week teaching in Topeka and the Nova law students participated in the class through a remote electronic video connection. The next week the seminar faculty taught in person at Nova, and the Washburn students joined in electronically from Topeka.

Photograph: Charlene Smith at 2001 Ahrens Torts Seminar.
Charlene Smith at 2001 Ahrens Torts Seminar.

In 1990, Charlene, along with Professor Bill Rich, planned and implemented another innovative course, the Law Colloquium. Not only did the subject matter of the course change each year, but the course was unique in that it was co-taught by many Washburn law faculty members. The faculty members collaborated five times to co-teach diverse topics including Feminist Legal Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Professionalism. Charlene was instrumental in offering one of the colloquia on Comparative Human Rights and Women, a course co-taught by not only several Washburn faculty members, but also by an international legal scholar on women's rights.

Charlene was passionate about the legal rights of women and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. She served on the Kansas Bar Association task force on women and was the editor of the Kansas Women's Legal Rights Handbook. She also compiled surveys of LGBTI citizens of Topeka and oversaw the incorporation of the survey results in the Topeka LGBTI task force report, which was presented to the city Human Rights Commission. In addition, she assisted law students in forming the Washburn Law School Lesbian and Gay Information Network and served as the organization's faculty advisor. In 1996 and 2001 Charlene organized a mini course on Comparative Human Rights: Women, Gays and Lesbians, co-taught by several Washburn law faculty members and well-known LGBTI legal scholars. The 2001 mini course faculty also included national LGBTI rights attorneys, who discussed legal strategies in current cases they were litigating. A course highlight was the participants watching television in real time as the first same-gender marriage legislation went into effect in the Netherlands.

During her time in Topeka, Charlene enjoyed raising a variety of animals at her hobby farm on the outskirts of town. The farm included dogs, horses, llamas and a large parrot. Charlene also loved to travel and was instrumental, together with Professor Linda Elrod, in setting up the Summer Study Abroad Program at Brunel University in Uxbridge, England, and then, a few years later, moving the program to King's College in London.

Charlene retired as professor emeritus from Washburn in 2003. She then joined the law faculty at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. During her last several years of teaching at Nova, she created and taught remote learning courses, again proving she was an innovative law professor well ahead of her time.

In Memoriam by Nancy G. Maxwell, Professor of Law Emeritus