George Smerk (second from right) is congratulated by a group of former students, including Michael Melaniphy (far right), on receiving the APTA award.
As an Indiana University (IU) business student in the 1970s, Perry Maull was looking for a two-hour class to fill out his schedule. He stumbled upon a transportation class taught by then IU professor and public transportation guru George Smerk.
“That was it for me,” said Maull, operations manager of IU’s Campus Bus Service. “He was such an inspiring professor. It wasn’t just a job for him, it was a passion.”
Smerk’s dedication to transportation was recently celebrated when APTA, which includes many of Smerk’s former students, presented him with its Lifetime of Academic Distinction Award.
“You don’t just teach it, you do it,” said APTA President/CEO Michael Melaniphy, a former student of Smerk who presented Smerk with the award during the Indiana Transportation Association’s 80th annual meeting in Bloomington. “I think that’s what brought so many of us to respect the hard work that you’ve done. You were active in it, you were passionate about it and you shared these things.”
Smerk’s love for mass transit started when he was a small boy growing up in Philadelphia, surrounded by carriers moving people throughout the bustling city.
“Philly had an enormous public transportation system,” Smerk said. “We had streetcar lines, three subways, a commuter rail network. ... I was turned on by that.”
When he wasn’t fascinated by the suburban trolley line that ran near the back of his home, Smerk was reading about transportation in books his father would bring home after his regular trips to New York as a buyer for a department store.
“One, in particular, was called ‘Trains,’ and I read it about 20 times,” Smerk recalled.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree and MBA from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Smerk came to IU Bloomington to obtain his doctoral degree. After a short time teaching at the University of Maryland, Smerk came back to IU where he not only made his mark not only at the university but in the transportation world as a whole.
Smerk served as a professor of transportation at the Kelley School of Business for almost 40 years, was executive director of IU’s Transportation Services and founded the Institute for Urban Transportation at IU, which later was designated a Center for Transit Research and Management Development by the Federal Transit Administration.
The former professor also helped create Bloomington Transit in 1972; helped save the South Shore Railroad, the last electric interurban line; helped form the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District; and served as the governor’s sole appointee on the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District for 30 years.
There is also a scholarship in his name — the American Public Transportation Foundation Scholarship — established in 2006 by his former students, known as “Smerkies.”
Although his work in the field of transportation is widely respected, it is Smerk’s enthusiasm in the classroom that is revered most by his students.
“Professor Smerk has taken many young college students who had no idea what they wanted to do and gave them purpose,” said former student Karl Gnadt, managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. “I had never taken public transit before, or even given it a thought. But Dr. Smerk had such an engaging and enthusiastic style of teaching that within the first few weeks of my first class with him, I knew that I wanted to work in public transit as my career. He taught us that we needed to institutionalize transit into our communities — but what he really did was institutionalize it into his student’s lives.”
Looking back on his career, Smerk can easily recall the names of his former students and list their accomplishments in the transportation field. Not one to tout his own accomplishments — Smerk said he almost fell out of his chair when he learned he would receive the lifetime achievement award — he is quick to brag about his former students and still has a strong belief in public transportation.
“I’m very happy to have had the role to encourage people,” he said. “(Someone once told me) I was leading people astray. He said ‘There’s no future in public transportation because it’s not a moneymaker,’ which is true. But the guys and gals that go into it enjoy it, they are doing something good for the community and it’s interesting work.”
Courtesy Indiana University