Distinguished Alumni Award


Luther H. Smith 50BSME

2006 Achievement Award

Luther H. Smith, 50BSME, has fought for racial equality in the skies of war-torn Europe and in his peacetime career in America.

As a young boy, Smith dreamed of becoming a pilot—at a time when few blacks had managed to breach the color barrier and enter the field of aviation. So, in 1938, Smith enrolled at the University of Iowa to study engineering, hoping to join the ranks of the countrys military pilots. Two years into his studies, World War II began. Rather than integrate troops, the government formed all-black military units, including the much-lauded Tuskegee Airmen, which Smith joined in 1942.

Between July 1944 and May 1945, the famed troop flew 200 escort missions over nine European countries without the loss of a single bomber to enemy aircraft—a feat that remains an astonishing achievement.

Based in Italy, Captain Smith flew 133 missions and is credited with destroying two enemy aircraft. On his final mission in October 1944, his plane was hit over Yugoslavia. Against all odds, Smith managed to free himself from his burning aircraft and open his parachute—although he sustained severe injuries to his hip and foot.

Smith was captured by German soldiers and endured two years in hospital and prison camps. By the time Allied soldiers liberated him in May 1945, he weighed just 70 pounds. Back in the U.S., he spent another two years in the hospital before being released, his injured leg seven inches shorter than the other. His flying career over, Smith retired at the age of 27 as a captain and a war hero.

Smith then returned to the UI and completed a degree in mechanical engineering in 1950, going on, despite continuing racism, to a long and successful career as an aerospace engineer with General Electric. In the years until his retirement in 1988, he published numerous papers, was awarded two patents, and was frequently called upon by the Department of Defense and defense-related agencies for special assignments. He earned an M.E. degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1977.

Smith represented the U.S. Army Air Corps as one of seven WWII veterans selected by President Clinton to attend the 50th anniversary V-E celebration trip to the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Russia. He also served on the evaluation board that selected the WWII memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC, and was instrumental in the establishment of a memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen.

A member of the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, Smith has received countless honors for his service to his country and for his success in the field of engineering: the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, a Purple Heart, European and Mediterranean Theaters Campaign Ribbons, a Prisoner of War Medal, the Franklin W. Kolk Aerospace Industry Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers, and election to the UI Distinguished Engineering Alumni Academy.

Now, the University of Iowa is proud to add another medal to that collection. This Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes Luther Smiths courageous wartime service, his outstanding career, and his significant contributions to racial equality in this country.


About Distinguished Alumni Awards

Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.


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L.A.-based artist Charles Ray to receive CLAS Alumni Fellow award, give talks this month. Unpainted sculpture by Charles Ray, 1997, fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171 inches. Photograph by Josh White and courtesy of the Matthew Marks Gallery. Charles Ray (75BFA) was walking through the UI physics and astronomy department one day when he came across an inspiring scene. Ray, an art student whose curiosity extended far beyond the studio, hoped to hitch a ride out to the observatory for some evening stargazing. Instead, he found a group of students constructing a satellite bound for a space mission. "It just blew my mind," recalls Ray. Just as mind-blowing were the sculptures Ray was creating across the river, years before he would establish himself as one of the world's most important artists. For one physics-defying piece, he fashioned a 2,000-pound slab of concrete atop a slender tree trunk. For another, he dropped a massive wrecking ball onto a crumpled steel plate, as if Sputnik had just crashed outside the old Art Building. Charles Ray "It was such a formative experience for me," the Los Angeles-based sculptor says of his time in Iowa City. "It did something to my soul and my brain. Even though I was young, the university and my mentors gave me a great deal of independence. My curiosity was endless." A professor emeritus at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Ray returns to campus this month to speak and receive the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Alumni Fellow award. Rather than just waxing nostalgic about his time at Iowa, Ray has organized a three-day lecture series April 16-18 with two fellow art scholars. Iowa native Graham Harman, a philosophy professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, will open the series by discussing his theory of aesthetics known as object-oriented ontology. On the second day, Ray will speak about the nature of sculptural objects. And Richard Neer, an art historian at the University of Chicago, will bookend the series by lecturing on the question of provenance, or art's origin. Ray will also give a separate public lecture April 17 in Art Building West titled "My Soul is an Object." Recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation, Ray is known for his strange and enigmatic sculptures so loaded with nods to the past that they've been called "catnip for art historians." His 2014 Horse and Rider, for example, is a 10-ton solid stainless steel work in the tradition of a war memorial, but depicts the artist slouch-shouldered atop a weary nag. Ray is also famous for his wry re-imaginings of familiar objects, like the 47-foot-long replica of a red toy fire truck that he parked in front of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art for a 1993 biennial exhibition. Ray and his studio team often spend years working on a given piece, which can fetch as much as seven figures at auction. His sculptures can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other major U.S. museums. Ray is currently preparing for a retrospective show in Paris next year?one of several upcoming international exhibitions. Isabel Barbuzza, UI associate professor of sculpture, describes Ray's work as beautiful and witty, while using scale in unexpected ways. Ray's 8-foot-tall Boy with Frog?commissioned for a prominent spot in Venice, Italy, then removed after some controversy (a version now stands outside the Getty Museum in Los Angeles)?is among Barbuzza's favorites. "His sculptures have a presence you can only see when you're in front of the work," she says. "They're very moving, and to me it's interesting what happens with scale?the viewer relates to the piece in a very profound way." Steve McGuire (83MA, 90PhD), director of the School of Art and Art History, says few others have contributed more to contemporary art than Ray. "This is a big deal for us to be able to celebrate his career," McGuire says of presenting Ray with the alumni fellow award. "I think it's pretty meaningful to him, and of course it's really meaningful for our school." A Chicago native, Ray arrived at Iowa as a gifted artist but hardly a model student. Ray's dyslexia made schoolwork a chore, and his parents had sent him to military school with the hopes of straightening out his academics. It was at the UI, however, where he finally found his language in the studio and, in turn, his footing in the classroom. "Through the syntax of sculpture, I could express myself intellectually for the first time," Ray says. "That gave me a kind of confidence." Ray studied under UI art school pillars like Wallace Tomasini, Julius Schmidt, and Hans Breder. But it was his bond with Roland Brenner?a South African professor and former pupil of sculptor Anthony Caro?that proved to be the most influential. Ray still remembers his first sculpture in Brenner's class, a steel configuration with long stems and discs at the end. Its bouquet-like resemblance didn't sit well with Brenner. "That showed me you made something, but didn't want to discover something," Ray recalls Brenner telling him. "Don't ever do that in my class again." The two would become lifelong friends. Iowa City is a different place today than the 1970s, particularly the transformation of the arts campus after the flood of 2008, Ray says. Still, his visits back to campus over the years always remind him of those crisp and clear Iowa nights at the observatory and gazing out the studio window while exploring the frontiers of sculpture. "It feels like you can see right through the galaxy when you look up," Ray says. Handheld bird by Charles Ray, 2006, painted steel, 2x4x3 inches The UI is home to six pieces by Ray, all found in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building and displayed through the university's Art on Campus program. Among them is Handheld bird, a tiny but ornate piece depicting a creature in an embryonic state. Lunchtime Lecture Series What: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences fellow Charles Ray and two guest art scholars?Graham Harman and Richard Neer?will deliver a series of public lectures this month at the UI. When, where: 12:20 p.m. April 16?18 at Art Building West, room 240, 141 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City More information: events.uiowa.edu/26915 My Soul is an Object: Artist Talk with Charles Ray What: A public lecture by renowned sculptor and UI alumnus Charles Ray When, where: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 17, at Art Building West, room 240, 141 N. Riverside Drive, Iowa City More about Ray: charlesraysculpture.com/ Support the UI School of Art and Art History

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