At 90 years old honorary alum Thales Smith continues to change lives through the healer’s art.
When Provo pediatrician Thales H. Smith and his late wife, Charone, entered a dilapidated Albanian pediatric hospital in 1992, the image of silent, malnourished infants in wooden cribs was forever etched in their minds.
Called as service missionaries to the isolated Balkan country, the Smiths were prepared to care for babies but not primed for a building with worn-out central heating, broken windows that let in wind and rain, and dull lighting that accented the depressing, gray atmosphere. What they especially did not anticipate were the eerily quiet children swaddled from the neck or shoulders down. The Smiths tried but could not make eye contact with the children, who had bony, malnourished faces. Many had lesions, infected scalps, raging rashes. The Smiths left the room in tears.
Through love, education, expertise, and hard work, they obtained acceptable formula, blankets, clothing, diapers, bottles, and other items—items taken for granted in the Western world. Charone, a registered nurse, employed range-of-motion and muscle-stimulating activities while Dr. Smith served as a consultant and educator. The children began to smile and, shortly thereafter, to thrive. Those 18 months changed the lives of the children—and of the Smiths.
The 2013 recipient of the BYU Honorary Alumni Award, Smith selected pediatrics as an early career choice because he realized he could make a real difference by saving lives. “As I went through various rotations during my training, I saw how desperately ill some children were and—with appropriate treatment—how rapidly they recovered,” he explains. “I have looked at medicine almost as a sacred calling because you are dealing with intimate problems with families, and to be able to assist with reassurance and calmness and to help them with deep concern makes such a difference. . . . The greatest contribution I have made overall is helping insecure and flustered young mothers with their first babies become caring and competent with large families.”
For his extensive pediatric service Smith has received the Marty Palmer Service to Children Award from the Intermountain Pediatric Society among other honors.
As a member of the Cougar Club almost since its inception, he donated to help build the Marriott Center and LaVell Edwards Stadium. When BYUbegan its Aspen Grove Family Camp a half century ago, it needed 110 supporters to each guarantee $1,000 on the loan. Among those who stepped forward was Dr. Smith, who served as the camp’s physician on two occasions.
“Even though I graduated from the university up north, I have become so attached to BYU,” says Smith. “I’m sure part of that comes as a result of my taking care of children for many of the coaches at the Y.”
He worked with one BYU professor on a community project for a children’s guidance clinic at a time when there was no place to refer children with mental-health disorders. A violist, Smith also worked closely with several members of the BYU music faculty for two decades in the Utah Valley Symphony, which in its first years needed BYU’s support and cooperation.
In addition, he served as president of the BYU 14th Stake. “This was a wonderful opportunity,” he says, “and through Elder Vaughn Featherstone, I was given a charge to help teach young people—especially from foreign countries—how to run the Church.”
At age 90 Smith is retired but still donates time every month to a United Way clinic for underserved children.
— Charlene Renberg Winters (BA ’73, MA ’96)