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Meet Chuck Smith

Wofford assistant professor in biology Chuck Smith grew up in Massachusetts, but there was something that kept bringing him to South Carolina, and it wasn’t the weather.

chck290“South Carolina is one of the best known places and among the most diverse places in North America in terms of reptiles,” he says. “As a teenager I would drive down here all the way from Massachusetts to see them. Did it for years and years.”

Smith has a fear of heights, but absolutely no fear of snakes whatsoever. In fact, he’s fascinated by them, and has been since he was 8 years old.

Why snakes?

“I don’t know,” he laughs. “When I was 8 my mother made the foolish mistake of bringing home a pet garter snake that a neighbor had found. Something in me either clicked or snapped (depending on how you view a love of snakes), and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since. It’s all I’ve ever done.”

He remembers an early 70s movie called “Sssssss” in which the main character studied snakes in a big basement laboratory full of aquaria writhing with snakes all around him.

“It had a huge effect on me,” says Smith. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

As an adult, he has worked as a herpetologist in the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., as well as the Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. And he has spent countless hours in the field, literally, studying snakes, specifically copperheads. chuckport 

“I’m a herpetologist (one who works with reptiles and amphibians), but to narrow it down, I work mostly with snakes, and to narrow it down even further I work with poisonous snakes and to narrow it further than that I work with pit vipers,” says Smith. “We have five species of pit vipers In South Carolina.

“I do most of my field work with copperheads. They’re just a great animal. There have been a couple of times when they have reminded me that I need to pay a little bit more attention and I’ve been bitten. Luckily it was a copperhead every time, and not a cottonmouth or a larger rattlesnake.”

A love of travel seems to be a prerequisite at Wofford, but Smith takes it to another level.

“My other passion is the New World tropics,” he says. “I lived in Belize one summer in the rain forest. There was no electricity. There was no running water. Just a thatch hut. I saw not just snakes but every kind of critter you can imagine -- jaguars, mountain lions, kinkajous, all kinds.

“Travel is very much a passion, and I love being outdoors and just immersing myself in the places I go. Using Belize as an example, I wanted to find out what the rain forest is really like.”

If it all sounds like Indiana Jones to you, remember that Jones also taught at a university. In his early 30s, Smith decided he wanted to complete the college education he started but never finished. He came back to South Carolina to attend USC for his undergraduate degree, then moved back up north to get a graduate degree at the University of Connecticut. That’s where he first got the teaching bug. And that’s when South Carolina beckoned once more. This time it was Spartanburg and Wofford College.

“I was looking for a teaching job specifically at a small liberal arts school, one that had a long tradition of excellence in teaching set in the context of a rich history,” he says. “And it was important to me to find a place where there was student/teacher interaction.

“At Connecticut, I taugchck200ht classes where one class was bigger than the entire incoming freshman class is here. You can get to know a couple of students personally in that environment, but not anywhere near what is possible here. Within the first week and a half of classes I already know a good number of my students. Not just their names and faces, but something about them.”

And they are learning about him. There’s much more to Smith than snakes, yet he’s very patient in discussing them because he knows they instill a primal fear in many people.  

“I find that almost every first conversation I have with somebody migrates to the subject of snakes,” he says. “Most people are actually very interested in them, but socially I don’t bring up what I do in the beginning.”

Smith DOES have other interests, after all. Hockey (playing), sushi (eating), and his kayak (rowing) are three of the biggest.

“I used to play hockey, and I’ve found that (assistant professor of religion) Dan Mathewson is an avid hockey player as well,” he says. “We’re trying to get a pickup roller hockey league together. I love sushi, and would have it every night if I could. Coffee? Yes. I drink lots and lots of coffee. And I specifically bought a house on a lake so I could walk across the street and go kayaking, but sadly I haven’t gone out all summer.”

In the meantime, he is getting accustomed to the Palmetto State all over again as he settles into his new job.

“South Carolina has drawn me back again,” says Smith. “I feel very fortunate in that what I love to do most is part of my job. If I had a free day and the choice of what to do was all mine, I’d be out looking for animals. I get to do that as part of my job and talk to students about it. That’s pretty cool.”
He wants his outdoor spirit to rub off on his students.

“Something I want to impart to my students is that you can you learn a lot from classroom lectures and books, but you can learn a lot more by actually getting out in the field and applying what you’ve learned in the classroom.”

Especially if what you have learned about has scales.