Meet Chris Smith
Too smart for his own good, our director of digital communications is celebrating 25 years at the UMAA.
When Chris Smith was 10 years old, living in Torrance, California, he read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, the satirical, nonlinear account of soldiers during WWII. He admits that he probably didn’t understand all of the book, but “I knew it was funny.” This precocious 10-year-old grew up to be a 25-year employee of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association. And lucky we are. This month, we celebrate Chris’s many integral contributions to the UMAA.
First, Chris is tall. He’s 6’6”. So, when he comes to work each morning, often having pedaled his bike from his St. Paul home, even in the snow, you know it. Second, he’s fit. Nearly every day at noon, he works out at the University Recreation and Wellness Center next door. If you need a box lifted, a jar opened, or a suit jacket modeled, he’s your guy. Much more importantly, though, Chris is a generous, wryly funny, creative, and dedicated member of the UMAA team.
Chris started college in California, but for very interesting and colorful reasons which we’ll leave to the imagination, he quit and moved to Minnesota. “My dad grew up in Omaha,” he says. “We used to visit there quite a bit. This reminded me of that a lot. It felt like a good place to be after years in Los Angeles where I was living a different kind of life. I felt more grounded here.”
He resumed his education at the University of Minnesota and earned a B.A. in journalism in 1986. He wrote for the Minnesota Daily and several community newspapers. “I always loved writing, from the time I was old enough to read,” Chris says. Looking for work that was more stable and included benefits, he started at the UMAA in 1994. “I thought working at the U would be really cool, which it is. There is so much energy here and interesting work and interesting people.”
1994 was President Bill Clinton’s second year in office. The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video was newly released. Pulp Fiction was in theaters and O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder. At the UMAA, Chris added to his incredible bank of cultural knowledge while working in communications. He does spot-on impressions from the British comedy, The IT Crowd. Last Halloween, he came to the office dressed as an extremely believable Gandalf.
Around the time the UMAA moved into the newly built McNamara Alumni Center, in 2000, Chris became managing editor of Minnesota Alumni magazine, which then was called simply Minnesota. He’d been writing more and more for the publication under editor in chief Shelly Fling. “We had a sports column in every issue,” Chris says. “The person couldn’t do it anymore, so I took that over. I did more articles here and there. There was a logical shift into that. I liked it. Shelly was great. She taught me rules about writing and editing I still think of today.”
He especially likes writing stories about off-kilter people. “There was this guy who ran the blue jay lab,” he recalls, citing a 2005 profile. “He was super quiet and wearing a ratty little sweater. At some point the birds were so loud, he said, ‘Maybe we should talk in another room.’”
Chris was the magazine’s managing editor until 2005, when the electronic communications director position opened up. “I like technology,” says Chris, now director of digital communications. “It paid better. And it was growing, where print journalism was not.” Ahem, moving right along…
When you receive your Alumni Angle e-newsletter, Chris is the force behind it. He came up with the idea five or so years ago. “I felt we needed a new way to talk to all alumni,” he says. Next, Chris and Sarah Huerta, senior director of digital communications, brainstormed the innovative idea of customizing Alumni Angle to fit the preferences of individual recipients. “I feel like Alumni Angle has been a big success in that way,” he says.
On the side, Chris has penned a novel and is in the middle of writing two more. He describes the first and its sequel as “young adult high fantasy” and the last as an occult murder mystery. Chris has four kids, two in high school, one in college, and one taking a break from college.
He especially enjoys interacting with the students who work at the UMAA. “They give me hope,” he says. “They are so much smarter than I am.” We highly doubt that.