Jim Bishop | A key that unlocked an educational legacy

I thought: What an exemplary gesture in honor of one whose life touched and influenced so many, including a relative of mine who never met this man, the late C. Henry Smith, in person.
Smith (1875-1948), was an outstanding American historian and educator. The Metamora, Ill., native married Laura Loder in 1908, but they had no children. Nevertheless, he influenced generations of young people through his long years of teaching – at Goshen (Ind.) College, 1903-1905 and 1908-1913, and at Bluffton (Ohio) College, now University, until his death in 1948.

Dr. Smith wrote volumes on church history, his magnum opus being “The Story of the Mennonites,” published in 1941, along with major treatises on the coming of Russian Mennonites to America and the Mennonite migration to Pennsylvania in the 18th century. He was a major figure in the planning of the Mennonite Encyclopedia and served as co-editor until his death.

His unflagging commitment to Mennonite values of peace, justice and nonresistance continues in part through the annual C. Henry Smith Peace Oratory Contest held annually on North American Mennonite college campuses.

Smith was educated at Illinois State Normal University, the University of Illinois (BA, 1903), and the University of Chicago (BA. 1903, Ph.D., 1907). According to the Mennonite Encyclopedia, he was the first known American Mennonite to earn the Ph.D. degree and remain active in the church.

While a student at the University of Chicago, he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society that, according to Wikipedia, has a mission of “fostering and recognizing excellence” in the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. Founded at the College of William and Mary in 1776 as the first college fraternity, it is now the oldest and deemed most prestigious liberal arts and sciences honor society in the US. Its motto: “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Today there are 276 chapters and over half a million living members.

All this brings things around to a distant relative of Smith – my second cousin, Samantha (Sam) Bishop of Malibu, Calif.

Samantha recently received an unexpected honor, passed on to her from a relative, through marriage, of the legendary historian/educator. I usually see Samantha about once a year when she travels at Christmas from the West Coast to my hometown area in eastern Pennsylvania with her parents, Dan and Nancy Bishop. They’ve lived for years in a cliffside residence overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Samantha will graduate with honors (magna cum laude) in May with a degree in communications from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. On March 27 this year, she was among 130 people inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society at USC.

Jim Miller of Oakland, Calif., a great nephew of C. Henry Smith and a cousin to the late Verna Smith Bishop (my aunt), surprised Samantha with a special gift – Smith’s Phi Beta Kappa key from his student days at the University of Chicago a century ago.

Dr. Miller is a semi-retired otolaryngology (ears, nose and throat) specialist who closed his own medical practice ten years ago but still assists in surgeries, continues to write medical articles and do community service.

“Dan Bishop, my youngest first cousin, phoned in March and informed me that Samantha, whom I had never met, was magna cum laude and elected to Phi Beta Kappa at USC,” Miller told me. Miller inherited the key from C. Henry Smith, who designated that the first of his lineage to earn the Phi Beta Kappa award should receive his key. His wife Laura sent the key to him in 1959, exactly 50 years ago. Miller was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society while studying at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. He went on to medical school at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Entrusting the key to Samantha – wow, what a terrific young woman – on the USC campus is something I will always treasure,” Miller said. “It was a glorious day.”

The golden key that Samantha received is engraved with the image of a pointing finger, three stars and the Greek letters from which the society takes its name. The stars represent the ambition of young scholars and the three distinguishing principles of the Society – friendship, morality and learning. The reverse side bears the initials “SP” in script, which stand for the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, or “Philosophical Society.”

After graduation, Samantha plans to pursue a one-year masters program in human behavior at USC.

“It was a great honor to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. I still can’t believe that USC recognized me with such an honor,” Samantha said, adding that “the day was “even more special” when Jim Miller drove all the way from San Francisco and presented me the key that first belonged to C. Henry Smith. “I feel like I am now a special part of a family legacy that I can hopefully pass on to someone else in the future,” Samantha noted. “Holding the key of former Phi Beta Kappa’s is special to me.”

Especially so if Samantha uses that key to help others unlock doors of opportunity.


– Column by Jim Bishop

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