Polar Poetry: Alumnus is Inspired by Antarctica

Ron Smith, '77, takes on cause to honor animal heroes of South Pole exploration

By Bo Schwerin

The view from Col. Ron Smith’s dormitory room is gray. The frozen expanse of the Ross Sea reflects the slate sky like a dirty mirror. The Antarctic winter is approaching; this is one of Smith’s last days on the ice, the end of a six-month season of peace and crisis. McMurdo Station is quiet. Smith, ’77, may well be the only one looking out from the sanctuary of the station—listening, watching. Waiting to see what the continent offers before it is time to go.

Smith knows the harsh landscapes of Antarctica as well as any. For three years, he was commander of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. Air Force-led joint task force providing support to the nation’s Antarctic Program, a complex scientific research effort based at the bottom of the world. There, as a military commander amidst the wild barrens of ice and snow, the Loyola alumnus found an inspiration that has sustained him ever since.

In 1983, a few years removed from earning his sociology degree from Loyola—excelling also at basketball and lacrosse—Smith joined the Maryland Air National Guard. He thought it was “probably a really cool thing to do,” better than a white-collar career that he couldn’t quite stomach.

For the next 14 years, Smith served as navigator on C-130 cargo planes, flying peacetime, humanitarian, and combat missions around the world. After transferring to New York, he flew ski-equipped LC-130s into the polar circles. Smith worked his way up the ranks, becoming a colonel.

“Ron was one of the best navigators I ever flew with,” says retired Lt. Col. Bruce Huester, who served on numerous missions with Smith over 10-plus years. “The more challenging the mission, the more he enjoyed it.”

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In 2005, he was given the assignment that made his other missions pale in comparison. Antarctica beckoned.

As commander of Deep Freeze, Smith managed the logistics of survival for the scientists and contractors who populate the outposts of the frozen continent. During the “warmer” months of September through March, Smith’s operation ferried cargo and passengers from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Station, the permanent U.S. research center in Antarctica, where smaller planes would fly several missions a day in support of the scientists in the field. There were 24 hours of sunlight and no days off. There were rescue calls: scientists snared by instant snowstorms, ships trapped in ice.

“It tested my physical capacity to the limits,” Smith says.

For brief escapes from the pressures of command, Smith would climb Observation Hill, an 800-foot peak overlooking McMurdo Station. There he recognized a powerful dichotomy, one he was moved to capture the best way he could—through poetry.

“There’s a psychological impact that Antarctica makes on you with its beauty and its brutality,” he says. “Those two things are always in a dance together.”

That dance emerges in Smith’s poetry, which has been published in The New York Times and an array of literary journals, earning him the moniker “The Polar Poet.” He says his poetry rises from the unfiltered experience of a natural power that “totally transcends what a human being could conceive of creating.”

Smith moved on from Operation Deep Freeze in 2008, carrying with him a lifetime of poetic inspiration and a deep appreciation for the challenges faced by all who have ventured into the Antarctic—human and animal alike. A student of the continent’s history, Smith realized that, while the great explorers of Antarctica such as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen received their due fame, the sled dogs and ponies that carried them in their race to be first to the South Pole were largely forgotten. He embarked on a two-year project to create an official airway chart naming navigational waypoints after the explorers’ animal compatriots. Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the race to the South Pole (which Amundsen won), the completed chart was presented to the country of New Zealand by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“It was so far beyond whatever I thought would happen,” Smith says.

That statement might characterize Smith’s entire career. He now lives in St. Louis, Mo., where he is working on Antarctic-inspired art projects and has completed a manuscript of his polar poetry. For all his travels, he credits his time on the Evergreen campus as a source of the strength he needed to succeed in difficult times.

“You always remember the teachers and coaches who tell you, ‘You can do this,’” Smith says. “I hearkened back to that experience a lot during the challenges in my life since Loyola.”

Smith can tell you what it’s like to wake to a 1 a.m. distress call from a group of scientists stranded in the midst of a sudden and ferocious ice storm. He can tell you what it’s like to be a semi-pro basketball player in Europe. (Yes, he’s done that, too.)

But there are moments that cannot be captured in narrative, not fully. Moments that require more subtle expression. On that gray day in Antarctica, Smith watches, awed, as a pod of killer whales glide up a narrow channel cut by a long departed icebreaker. He follows their glistening backs as they swim methodically up and down the ice edge. He knows they are hunting.

Beauty and brutality.

The stuff of poetry.

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1 Comment

  • Posted by Steve Kauffman | April 2, 2011

    I played lacrosse with Ron at Loyola. Jay Connor, our coach, emailed this article to me. Ron was a terrific lax player, and a great guy, but I never realized he had a poet’s soul. I’m happy for Ron that he is so passionate about what he has done with his life. He is a much more talented man than I realized.
    Stay well Ron,
    Steve Kauffman

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