Core gets a little emptier

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You may not have heard of him, and you may not even care once we tell you about him, but Professor Emeritus J.W. Smit cared about you. The only known person to have taught all four Core classes (Art Hum, Music Hum, Lit Hum, and CC), the Nobility and Civility fixture shaped the Curriculum since he started teaching CC in the 1970s. Besides being an accomplished pianist and economist–and possessing perhaps Columbia’s best honorific, the Queen Wilhelmina Professor of History–Smit knew more about the history of the Core than perhaps any person living. And, according to an anonymous grieving tipster, Smit welcomed students to his apartment to shoot the breeze about options pricing in the sixties, or anything else one could think to talk about.

Smit died last week of a heart attack while on holiday in the Netherlands. Rest in peace, professor.



  1. he will be missed  

    a truly great man.

  2. Aww.

    Never met him, and after that post, I'm sad that I never will. He sounded awesome.

  3. his title is actually even better

    queen wilhelmina professor of the language and literature of the netherlands.

    and yes, he was great. never one to shy from a debate, but always one to try to let students have the opportunity to speak. in short, a great teacher, of whom there are always few, far between.

  4. he will be missed

    I had Professor Smit for Music Hum and he was by far the best core professor I had at Columbia. What an amazing man. He invited us all to his house and cooked us an Indonesian feast. A lot of the students in the class were gifted pianists and we sat around playing music and talking for hours. He was a wonderful man and he will be missed incredibly.

  5. that actually confused me  

    he was the emeritus queen wilhelmina professor. but i never knew of anyone else holding the title.

  6. that sucks. rip.

    never had him. wish i did. we need to know more about amazing profs like this

  7. this is easily  

    the best post you've done in a very long time.

  8. a true loss

    for columbia without a doubt.

    yet somewhere a little voice nags- any bets that ttan reported this?

    • yeah. it sucks

      that a guy (if this was him) cares about our school so much that he unearths people and other hidden gems that the rest of the community should know about.

      perhaps somebody could inform me...did ttan run over your dogs or something?

      • haha

        no, there's just only one person at columbia who is obsessed with the Core, is in Nobility and Civility, and can talk about options pricing... and its ttan

        • unfortunately

          it appears even the bwog recognizes that Nobility and Civility was quite popular a class and it actually makes sense that history and economics may overlap

          do you hold some type of childish grudge against ttan (personal disclosure- i know the guy and he's seen a little hoity toity but nice nonetheless)

          • ttan

            Hi. I'd appreciate if we stop talking about me.

            Full disclosure: John "Rudy" Shekitka told me about the passing of Professor Smit. Rudy heard it from Peter Insley, a fellow student in N&C, and confirmed it with Rachel Chung, an co-instructor in a class with Prof. deBary.

            I sent Bwog a tip that Prof. Smit had passed away, ccing my good friend Chris Szabla, who replied with a basic introduction about Prof. Smit and his reputation as Columbia's resident Renaissance facultyman, including the fact that he taught all four classes. I replied again with the story about how I went to his apartment to discuss Roman history earlier this summer and we ended up talking about options pricing in the 60s (Smit happened to spend two years at an investment bank).

            The picture, the full biography, the link, and all the writing, etc. is all researched and done completely by Bwog staff, which I am *not* a part of.

            When I send stuff to Bwog, for example, the "Pennhattanville" entry a few days ago, I usually do not speculate or muse on the implications, nor do I go into great detail. All that reporting, fact-digging, strange connections, etc. were done by Bwog.

  9. ttan

    The first line in the last post was accidentally partially deleted. It should have read:

    Hi. I'd appreciate it if we stop talking about me. What is relevant is that we have lost Professor Smit, not who tipped Bwog off to that fact.

  10. ttan

    Here's my Smit story. I had Smit for N&C. Great guy. Whenever I had presentation to make (N&C required each student make 2), Smit always invited me over to his apartment to discuss the books and some of the major ideas. Once he even called me on my cell when I was running a few minutes late to make sure I didn't get lost (it's in my email signature; Smit's not a stalker).

    I had signed up to do a thesis in the history department on a topic that is still undecided. I knew it would involve classical history, and I knew that Smit was quite the classicist (he was eerily knowledgable about Machiavelli's Discourses because he read all of Livy in Latin once).

    Anyway, I went over to Smit's in late May. He was happy to see me and we started talking. We talked about everything: Roman art, Roman economic history, Roman social history, Roman political history, Roman philosophy, etc. etc. What was especially amazing was for every topic, no matter how arcane, Smit either had a title and author on the tip of his tongue, or he'd disappear into his library for a few minutes and return with an armload of books.

    We eventually settled on a topic of Roman economic history to discuss for the moment and Smit started throwing titles and authors at me. I was writing them down as quickly as I could. After I took down about 10 names, Smit looked up and said "You have German, don't you?" I was forced to admit I did not, which caused Smit to sheepishly grin and quickly say "Sorry, then cross off (about half) of those names then." Then he said, "Well you need to spend about a week in the library and read some of those books. Email me about what you're doing, I'll be in the Netherlands, but I'll have my email."

    Then he asked me what I was doing this summer. I said I was working at a capital markets desk on Wall Street, thinking maybe this is the only thing which I could possibly know more about than Smit.

    I was wrong.

    Smit smiled again and told me that in the 1960s, before he joined the Utrecht faculty, he spent two years at Rabobank on the call money desk. The unbelievability of this situation was now borderline absurd. So I asked him if options and derivatives were popular in the 1960s and how they were priced and traded before Black-Scholes and computers. Anyway, that set off another 30-minute conversation.

    I will miss Smit. He was Columbia's resident Renaissance facultyman - and he can never be replaced.

    • thanks

      for the story and perspective

    • mrp

      good stuff. these are the people i wish id meet more often at college. most of the times professors give me the "welcome to office hours. what questions regarding class/grades/your paper can i answer in 5 minutes? thank you come again." shpiel as if im visiting a doctor who wants me out of the examination room in under 15 minutes.

      based on everything ehre i can def say i'm sad to have never made smit's acquaintance.

  11. yeah

    sounds like quite a professor... I too wish I had him for any of those core classes.

    but none of this changes the fact that every one of bwog's "tips" seem to come from ttan, which seems to be a little weird.

  12. okay

    the reason so many of tao's tips appear on bwog is that he's one of the few people who actually contributes relevant and interesting things (if he's not one of the few contributing anything at all). if you really despise it, you can dilute his influence by finding stuff you think would be better. otherwise, stop complaining that tao is actually helping infuse the bwog with regularly updated content.

  13. JJV  

    I don't usually agree with Tao's politics, but this is the kind of thing that I like seeing on Bwog. I never thought I'd be publicly defending him (quite the opposite, actually) but am glad to say that despite the fact that we disagree on many things, Tao's a good guy and one who I would consider a friend.

    Thanks, Tao, for passing along news tips.

    • then seal the deal

      and make tao bwog's editor. the current editor(s)? doesn't seem to do much other than post whatever he sends in. it seems kinda dishonest to say officially that this is coming from "bwog staff" when in fact it's all from one very prominent campus figure who maintains he's not part of bwog. especially when he's writing about manhattanville and other campus politics things it'd be nice to know where the information was coming from.

      • ttan

        As I've said before, I do very little, if any, of the writing that actually makes it into Bwog posts. In this case, I passed along news with a brief anecdote about Smit. His biography, picture, and history were assembled by Bwog staff, not me. In the Manhattanville post that you spoke of, I skimmed the Penn plan and forwarded the PDF link to Bwog. All the reading, research, and connections were made by Bwog staff, not me.

  14. Folks  

    Your 'purge the general staff of the Bwog' comments are completely unneeded, especially in an obituary post.

  15. ....  

    Oh Smittey! Classics, economics, history, Dutch things, piano, Indonesian food!

    I didn't think such interesting people were still around. They're dying off, to be sure.

  16. memorial service

    Subject: INSM W3921.001

    Dear class,

    I hope that this message finds each of you in good health and spirit. I imagine that you never expected to hear from me again now that the summer is almost over, but I unfortunately must be the bearer of some very sad news.

    In late July, Professor Wim Smit died of a heart attack in his home in Holland. His death came suddenly and unexpectedly, and we still do not possess complete or reliable information about its circumstances.

    The History Department plans on releasing an obituary sometime over the next few days. If any of you are still in the New York area, please be advised of the following announcement, which I have just received from the History Department. It would be wonderful if you could attend.

    Yours sincerely,

    David Bornstein


    Please know that the memorial service for Jacobus Wilhelmus Smit will be held at St. Paul's Chapel on the Columbia University Campus.

    Monday, September 18th, 2006

    Beginning at 5:00 PM, to end by 7:00 PM

    The chapel is on the Amsterdam Avenue side of the campus, near 118th Street. A map of the campus is available here:

  17. Jordy Bell

    Wim Smit was my teacher and thesis advisor in the late 60's - early 70's. One summer in the early 70's, my husband and I met him one morning in Amsterdam for coffee. We three were so intent on our conversation that we just got up and walked off, without paying. Some time later, we all looked at each other and asked, "Did YOU pay?" Back in NYC, Wim told me that when he'd gone back to cover the bill, the waiter simply said, "I knew you'd be back." I have many other anecdotes, but that's my favorite.

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