The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Dick Smiley Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

November 21, 2014


Richard W. Smiley was born in 1943 in Paso Robles, California and grew up near there on a ranch where his father worked as a foreman. When Smiley was twelve, the family moved to Shandon, California, where Dick experienced the remainder of his upbringing. A strong student, Smiley was also involved with 4-H and Future Farmers of America for several years. He likewise attended a few Extension classes sponsored by the University of California-Riverside, and was influenced by these classes to pursue a university degree.

Smiley began attending California State Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo in 1961. He majored in soil science and was particularly interested in soil fertility, and during the summers he worked in the agricultural industry for Brea Ag Services. Smiley graduated in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in soil science. Upon the completion of his studies, Smiley received an offer to work full-time for Brea, but chose instead to go to Washington State University to pursue a master's degree.

Smiley began graduate school at WSU in 1966, majoring in soils and minoring in plant pathology, while also working for the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He completed his master's program in 1969, but remained at Washington State as a Ph.D. student. This time majoring in plant pathology and minoring in soils, Smiley finished his doctorate in 1972.

His Ph.D. in hand, Smiley and his wife moved to Adelaide, Australia, where he worked as a NATO Post-Doctoral Fellow for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). Smiley's research in Australia focused on the microbial ecology of wheat rhizosphere in relation to infectivity by take-all pathogens. In 1973, after his fellowship ended, Smiley continued to work for CSIRO as a research officer in soil microbiology.

Later that year, Smiley and his family returned to the United States, where he had been hired by Cornell University as a research associate of plant pathology. While at Cornell, Smiley conducted research and organized Extension work on the cause and control of turfgrass and wheat diseases, as well as the microbiology of turfgrass systems. In 1975, he entered the tenure track as an assistant professor, and five years later he was promoted to associate professor.

In 1982, Smiley returned to Australia, based this time in Melbourne, as a visiting senior scientist at the Victoria Department of Agriculture. While there, he investigated the cause and control of a root rot complex of subterranean clover. He remained in Melbourne for a year, during which time he published a textbook, Compendium of Turfgrass Diseases, with co-authors Peter Dernoeden and Bruce Clarke.

Smiley's association with Oregon State University began in 1985, when OSU offered Smiley a position as professor of plant pathology and station director at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center (CBARC), located just outside of Pendleton, Oregon. Once arrived, Smiley set about establishing eastern Oregon's first scholarly plant pathology program. As station director, Smiley also worked to build stronger relationships between the center's faculty with those from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, as well as teaching and research faculty based at OSU. CBARC also administers a research station in Moro, Oregon, which is nearly 140 miles away from Pendleton, and Smiley was charged with administering work at that location as well.

In 1987, Smiley became the Editor-in-Chief of the American Phytopathological Society Press, a position that he held until 1991. In the early 1990s, Smiley also led a series of research projects on diseases of cereals and wheat. He was named a fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 1994 and, in 1995, he won the Briskey Award for Faculty Excellence from OSU's College of Agriculture.

In 1999, Smiley returned to Australia for a conference. One of the presenters there described damage caused by nematodes in Australian grains and Smiley recognized evidence of similar damage showing up in the Pacific Northwest. When he returned to the U.S., Smiley began shifting his research to nematodes, and quickly realized that the organisms were important to agricultural concerns in his home region. A year later, in 2000, Smiley stepped down as director of CBARC so that he could devote more time to research.

Smiley spent much of the next decade investigating nematode diseases of small grains. His other scholarly inquiries during these years focused on the cause and control of field crop diseases, especially wheat and barley diseases caused by nematodes and soil-borne plant-pathogenic fungi. In 2007, he joined the board of directors for the European Union's External Advisory committee for ENDURE (European Network for the Durable Exploitation of Crop Protection Strategies), an initiative that sought to improve pest management research and to develop more efficient systems for transferring information from scientists to farmers. He remained a member of this project until its conclusion in 2010.

Smiley retired as the head of CBARC's plant pathology program at the end of 2014, after almost thirty years with the station. Today, he continues to conduct research on ecology and soil-borne plant pathogens, as well as the management of root and crown diseases of small grains and grasses.