During three weeks in November 2014 the Wartburg Seminary community remembered the Reverend Dr. Ralph Smith, former Dean of the Chapel, by singing many of the hymns Ralph wrote as well as sharing memories of their time with Ralph or moments of inspiration connected to Ralph and his work. The following is an edited collection of thoughts shared during this time honoring Ralph and remembering him on the twenty-year anniversary of his death.
His Words Live On: A Student’s Encounter With The Works Of Ralph F. Smith By Shawn Brooks, final year M.Div.
I first encountered the works of Professor Ralph F. Smith when looking for a Gathering Hymn for my Senior Preaching service. The phrase “glad anxious hearts” in his hymn “We Come Now Assembled” seemed to me to capture perfectly the normal emotional state of a seminarian. I was preaching on “the peace of God that passes all understanding,” and as I wrote about exchanging the peace during worship, I gratefully used Smith’s words from that same hymn about encountering and greeting Christ in everyone we meet.
While reading Professor Smith’s sermons while preparing my own it was evident that he had a keen understanding of, and deep appreciation for, the seminary experience and seminarians. His words capture the nuances of life at the unique place that is seminary. They also proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected in a powerful yet deeply moving way. The straightforward simplicity of Smith’s language makes his images all the stronger, and the fact that he loved his calling and Wartburg runs through everything I saw. Smith’s preaching is a model to which I now aspire. His gentle love for Christ and for those around him is an ever-present reminder of what it means to be pastoral.
In Remembrance of Ralph Smith By Norma Cook Everist, Professor of Church and Ministry
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” This saying, which was on the door of Professor Ralph Smith’s office at Wartburg Seminary, spoke quietly, powerfully, to all who entered. Dr. Smith was Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel for ten years (1984-1994), a pastor, teacher and hymn writer. His walk was brisk. There were things to do.
He had no idea how many lives he touched so deeply, to naturally, so gently and with such strength that his life in Christ lives on. He lived so fully among us, seeing, listening, laughing, praying, knowing, remembering each person.
Ralph Frederick Smith, born July 29, 1950 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. He received his BA from Gettysburg College as an English major, Summa Cum Laude. He received his M.Div degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and was ordained in 1977. Pastor Smith served St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, Annapolis, MD, as Associate Pastor from 1977 to 1981. His Ph.D. was in the Department of Theology, the University of Notre Dame.
Ralph Smith married Cindy May 25, 1974 and they became parents to two daughters, Erin and Kirsten. Ralph at the age of 44, and his grandson, Isaac Ralph Smith, son of Erin, were killed in a two-car, head-on collision on Highway 20, east of Galena, Illinois, the day after Thanksgiving, Friday morning, November, 25, 1994, 20 years ago. They were buried together at St. John’s Cemetery in Dubuque. Ralph’s wife, Cindy, as well as a student, Julie Higgs, and Wartburg’s Director of Admissions then, Gloria Kaiser, survived.
During three weeks in November this year Wartburg remembered him through singing some of the hymns he wrote while teaching here at Wartburg. The hymns were published in the book, Gentle Strength: Homilies and Hymns of Ralph F. Smith, in time for graduation that next spring after his death. He was followed in his Wartburg position by his dear friend from graduate school at Notre Dame, Prof. Thomas Schattauer.
Ralph wrote hymns to be sung in worshiping communities. He was sensitive to the relationship between text and tune. He carefully placed action verbs on strong beats, drawing our attention to them. Ralph frequently wrote poetry to commemorate an occasion or in gratitude for a relationship.
Ralph was called to Wartburg Seminary in the fall of 1984 having been elected as Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel. He began teaching Spring term, 1985, and was installed as a tenured professor on Reformation Day, 1990. He helped St Mark’s Lutheran Church in downtown Dubuque create St. Mark’s Community Center for Ministry. Ralph served as Coordinator for Churchwide Assembly Worship for the ELCA 1993 Assembly in Kansas City. A baptismal font commissioned for that assembly remains as Wartburg’s baptismal font.
Professor Smith published a number of articles, worship guides, preaching helps and professional papers. Together with Dr. Patricia Beatti Jung, he co-authored the book, Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge (SUNY, 1994). Three days before his death he completed the final revision of his book, Luther, Ministry and Ordination, which was published in 1995 by Peter Lang.
The Smith Seminar Room at Wartburg Seminary is named in honor of Ralph F. Smith.
One Story By Thomas Schattauer, Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel
In this season remembrance for all the saints of God, I join with you in remembering Ralph Smith, who was my friend, my colleague in the study of liturgy, and my predecessor as professor of liturgics and dean of the chapel. His tragic death and that of his newborn grandson twenty years ago was a terrible shock to many of us, and his absence remains a great loss. Even that sense of loss, however, does not compare to the joy of remembering his great and generous spirit, his energy for life, and his readiness to give himself to us in each moment, all of which brings a smile to my face, yet a tear to my eye, as I write this.
One story. When I was beginning my dissertation research at the University of Notre Dame on Wilhelm Loehe’s liturgical work, I wanted to make a trip to Wartburg Seminary to take a look at the library resources for the study of Loehe and to confer with Gordon Lathrop, then professor of liturgics and dean of the chapel, about the direction of my research. I believe it was the fall of 1983. One day talking to Ralph, probably at lunch, which we often shared with other graduate student friends, I was trying to figure out how I would get to Dubuque. Ralph jumped in and without any hesitation said, “You can take my car.” So, my first trip to Dubuque and the seminary, I drove Ralph’s car. In fact, I drove through that very beautiful, but dangerous stretch of road where he was killed a little more than ten years later. When I drive that road today, I take note of the place where Ralph died, but even more I remember Ralph’s spontaneous generosity and enduring friendship.
It is good to remember Ralph together with you through these November days and to give thanks to God for his rich life and his witness to our common faith in Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. May he continue his rest in God’s peace among all the saints.
My Voice By Donnita Moeller, MDiv, STM, WTS Alum
Professor Ralph Smith helped me find my voice. I spoke with him one day about my frustration that my comments in classes would often be overlooked and then a male student would later say the same thing and the class would respond. After that day, when I would raise my hand in his class, Ralph would lift up my comment for further thought. He always said my name as the author of the thought but added his male voice and authority to give it weight in class. Over time the class began to hear me when I spoke. They began to think that I had something to say. But even more importantly, so did I. Ralph, thank you. I haven’t quit talking yet!
We‘re Still Singing By Roy Carroll, Cantor and Instructor of Organ and Church Music
I was encouraged to find words that I could use to recall my memories of Ralph as well. Here are a few. . . .a fully attentive listener, . . . a loving and caring pastor, . . . a husband and a parent; a quiet, contemplative, robust, humorous, compassionate, patient, grateful, welcoming, inclusive, gentle, direct, and deeply musical child of God, . . . one who was in tune with the rhythm of life, and who loved to sing.
I was privileged to collaborate with Ralph at WTS on a part time basis from the mid 1980’s until late November of 1994. The endeavors and ministry he and I shared in those few brief years marked a critical stage in my own faith journey and formation as a musician in the service of the Church.
Echoes of various shared collaborative experiences from our time together at WTS resound in my memory to this day. When we – the current WTS community, sing with full intention and expression, I can hear Ralph commenting on the incarnate beauty of such occasions. Regardless of who is playing it, when the Dobson organ in Loehe Chapel helps to facilitate and enrich the song of the assembly and our shared musical life together at WTS, I give thanks to God for Ralph’s persistently patient pastoral leadership and guidance throughout the extensive process that led to the acquisition of that instrument and much of the chapel furnishings that we use so effectively today. And then there are Ralph’s hymn texts . . . to know them is to know him.
While preparing my own reflective comments, I came across the following lines – I’m pretty sure Ralph is the author – in the opening pages of the dedication service for the Dobson pipe organ, which was celebrated on Sunday, December 3, 1989 – early in Advent. Ever faithful to context and mission, Ralph wrote:
“Advent summons us to the source of our life in faith. We are invited to attend once more to the mystery of the Word made flesh. In the unfolding of the story we find assurance that
God is God with us. We hear the promise that in the midst of daily living, shaped by word and sacrament, we encounter Christ. We are offered a Gift, and our common hope stems from
from the wondrous possibility that through us this Gift transforms the world.”
The remainder of that dedication program proceeded in the Advent Lessons and Carols format which we still share as a community at WTS to this present time; a series of scripture and non-scriptural readings, prayer and of course, music – vocal and instrumental, for both rehearsed musicians AND the assembly, . . the whole people of God.
One more “reflection.” Ralph helped me grow an appreciation for short, concise texts that can open a world of possibility. Here’s one of those ‘short’ texts that he especially enjoyed sharing with me. Again, think Advent. . .
“That man say we can’t have as much rights as a man ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with it.” –Sojourner Truth – nineteenth century.
Indeed. Thanks, Ralph; we’re still singing.