An academic career that includes appearances by Samuel Eliot Morison and Arlo Guthrie has to be interesting.
Lawrence Small’s career does and it is.
Small, a retired president of Rocky Mountain College and one of the founders of the Institute for Peace Studies, will be one of seven Montanans who will receive a governor’s humanities award in Helena on Feb. 21.
The honorees are selected by the board of Humanities Montana and sent to the governor for his approval.
Ken Egan, executive director of Humanities Montana, worked with Small during the 17 years that Egan taught English at Rocky.
Although Egan didn’t have anything to do with nominating or selecting Small for the award, he is pleased Small is receiving recognition.
Egan remembers Small as a “generous mentor to faculty and a wise president who has a sense of humor that has disarmed conflict and tension.”
Small also well versed in the history of religion in Montana, an underappreciated thread in Montana history, Egan said.
Small regrets that he won’t be able to travel to the capital for the ceremony.
Now 87, he’s had to limit trips to those closer to his home in Billings.
Despite a few physical limitations, Small remains an exacting, but gentle, scholar and amiable conversationalist who still has a Down East accent despite more than 50 years in Montana.
Small’s early interest in history was nurtured by his grandmother’s memories of the Civil War and Union veterans who lived in his neighborhood when he was growing up in Maine.
Small received degrees in history and divinity from Bangor (Maine) Theological Seminary before heading to Harvard for his doctorate.
While at Harvard, he studied with some of the great historians of the day, including Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. and Morison, a prolific writer who won Pulitzer Prizes for biographies of Christopher Columbus and John Paul Jones.
Small said that he chose for his thesis a topic he knew Schlesinger Jr., Small’s doctoral adviser, wouldn’t know anything about — the history of Unitarianism.
By the time Small completed his degree in 1955, he had married, started a family, been ordained in the Congregational Christian Church and was working as a pastor in churches in on the East Coast.
In 1959, Small and his wife, Elfie, packed up their family and moved to Billings, where he had been hired to be the one-man history and political science department at Rocky.
Small still remembers the challenge of teaching U.S. history, which he had a background in, as well as Russian, British and European history, in which he had much less preparation.
“Staying ahead of the students” was another part of the job that could be difficult.
Still, he was successful from the start. Three or four students from his first year at Rocky went on to become college professors and later acknowledged Small as their inspiration.
Although he later would have offers for other teaching jobs across the country, he settled into Billings for good.
The students, the promising future of the college and the Montana mountains all were reasons he stayed.
His four children also considered Billings home.
Had Small taken another job, he’s convinced they would have said, “You can go, Dad, we’ll stay.”
In 1961, he became academic dean at Rocky. In 1965, he was named acting president of Rocky. He became president in 1966.
Those were turbulent times when many campuses erupted in demonstrations and authority was rudely challenged.
Rocky didn’t see much of that, but still there were incidents.
Small remembers the day when his campus office was “occupied.”
Small was visited by a chemistry professor with his dog named H2O. The professor left, leaving his dog behind. Small had walked out with the professor, not realizing H2O was still in his office. Trying to return to his desk, Small was met at the door by H2O, teeth bared.
The chemistry professor returned shortly, took his dog home and the standoff was over.
In 1965, Arlo Guthrie came to Rocky as a student but remained only one semester, which was documented in the movie Guthrie later made, “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Small remembers Guthrie as a young man who spend a lot of time playing his guitar in the student union.
Guthrie has returned to Billings to perform several times since, Small said.
Small retired as Rocky president in 1975.
Small is amazed and pleased with Rocky’s growth and ability to adapt.
The school has grown from 300 students when Small first arrived to now more than 1,000.
Despite his grounding in the humanities, Small approves of the expansion of Rocky from a liberal arts college to include business, aviation and physician assistant programs.
A college offering only liberal arts courses “couldn’t survive here or anywhere,” he said.
“It’s a different college, a college responding to the times and the times they are a-changin’,” he said, adapting a quote from another 1960s folk singer.
In 1990, Small and several others started the Institute for Peace Studies at Rocky. Small, who led the program for several years, is proud of the many ways the nonprofit organization promotes peace, including through the Jeannette Rankin Peace Awards, Festival of Cultures, a day camp for children and the Bross Peace Seminar.
Small has published eight books, including the first volume of a history of Rocky, “Courageous Journey.” He also wrote the second volume, “Pathways to the Present,” with contributions from two of his successors, Arthur DeRosier and Michael Mace.
He also edited and wrote many of the essays in “Religion in Montana,” a history of religion in the state.
His most recent book is a collection of reflections and poems dedicated to his wife, who died in 2010, which he published for his family.