He’s North Platte Community College’s longest-serving physics instructor.
Larry Smith taught full-time at NPCC from 1966 to 2001 and served as chair of the mathematics and science division in the 1990s.
Those 35 years at the college allowed him to be part of NPCC’s evolution - from its humble beginnings in the old 1913 Post Office to its growth into a comprehensive, public, two-year institution serving an 18-county area.
The early days
When Smith was in high school, however, being a physics instructor wasn’t even on his radar. Instead, he wanted to become a civil or electrical engineer.
Those plans changed upon his graduation from Grand Island High School in 1955. Smith married his high school sweetheart, Patsy Underwood, and went to work for the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Larry didn’t go back to school until 1958, at which point he enrolled at the Nebraska State Teachers College in Kearney.
“It’s what I could afford at the time, and it wasn’t terribly far from Grand Island,” Larry said. “I could go home and get replenished on weekends.”
It didn’t take long for him start thinking about a career as a math teacher. He had always been good at math and had great instructors at Kearney. Larry wanted to follow in their footsteps and help students.
Getting his bearings
His first job following graduation from college in 1962 was as a math, chemistry and physics teacher at Hordville High School in Hamilton County. By then, he and Patsy had two children.
“I loved just being with the students – being around young people,” Smith said of the job. “I always enjoyed that, even after I got to be an old man.”
In 1965, Smith was presented with another opportunity. He received two academic year institute scholarships from the National Science Foundation that enabled him to pursue a master’s degree.
At that time, the Space Race was in full swing, and the NSF was giving scholarships to teachers willing to take a leave of absence to study full-time.
Smith received one to the University of Wyoming and another to the University of South Dakota. He accepted the Wyoming offer.
“We were able to move our family to Laramie and live in student housing,” said Smith. “We got a stipend, so I had as much income from that as I did teaching at Hordville.”
He graduated with a master’s degree in physics and math in 1966. It took him one academic year and one summer.
Finding a home at NPCC
“In the spring of 1966, I read in the newspaper that a junior college had been started in North Platte, and it was in need of a math and physics instructor,” said Smith. “I applied for the job and got it. I was the only physics teacher the college had for 35 years.”
It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the college atmosphere.
“The people I worked with were just wonderful,” said Smith. “A lot of us were close to the same age. In fact, I ended up being one of the younger ones. We really got to know each other and, in a sense, grew up together.”
His favorite part, though, was the students. He soon found that teaching at the college-level was much different from teaching high school. Mainly because those who were at the college wanted to be there.
“The students were wonderful,” Smith said. “I’m very proud of them. There are so many great ones who still live in North Platte. Many others went to work for places like the Boeing aircraft company, and a couple ended up constructing heavy-duty cranes like they use for big buildings.”
Another change that accompanied his move to the college was that Larry taught all ages. Many of his students were non-traditionals hoping to better themselves.
“I taught a night class with some young people in it, but mostly it was 30 to 40-year-olds,” Larry said. “It was always a joy to teach them because they were hungry for an education. I remember one semester, I taught a special class just for policemen trying to get an associate degree.”
A witness to progress
Larry started out teaching in the old 1913 Post Office at Fifth and Jeffers Streets in North Platte, where his office doubled as a classroom.
A new McDonald-Belton Building was in use by December of 1974 on what is currently the South Campus, but Larry didn’t move into it until 1977.
Neither did a lot of other faculty members. That’s because initially there was only enough money to construct the east end of the building. The second phase of construction, which made all areas useable, wasn’t substantially complete until June of 1977.
“Until then, the west end was just dirt,” said Larry. “Boyd Gentry, Virgil Nelson and I went out there several times to look around. We dreamed of being in that building. It had way more space than we were used to, and everything inside was new.”
One of the major attractions was that every office had a phone.
“That was a big thing,” Larry said. “In the post office, there was only one phone in the whole building. Linda Saighman, the secretary, was in charge of it, and every time it rang, she would have to go track down the person the call was for.”
Phone availability was soon dwarfed by another major advancement - the introduction of computers.
“I didn’t grow up using computers, so that presented a learning curve, especially at the end of my career,” Larry said.
Ending one chapter and starting another
The fact that so much was done on computers, played a part in his decision to retire.
“I was 65,” Larry said. “I could have kept going, but I thought maybe the college needed a younger person in there – someone who wouldn’t have as high of a learning curve.”
Another factor was that he and Patsy had moved to Jeffrey Lake, south of Brady, the year before he retired. The drive from there to North Platte was time-consuming, especially when Larry was preparing to embark on another project.
“Patsy had always wanted an art studio,” said Larry. “I wanted to build that studio for her.”
He didn’t stay away from the college for long, however. In 2005, Larry was contacted by Marilyn McGahan, former NPCC vice president, about teaching physics as an adjunct instructor for the 2005-06 academic year. He ended up teaching during the 2006-07 academic year as well.
Larry still visits the college from time to time and enjoys following the progress that has occurred since he left. He will always be one of NPCC’s biggest fans.
“Community colleges play a huge role in helping people who want to go to work in a short amount of time,” Larry said. “I was also always proud of the fact that NPCC credits would transfer to the university. Community colleges make receiving an education attainable and affordable. I’m a big proponent of them – especially ours.”