George Smerk, Noted Indiana University Transportation Professor, Has Died

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. –– Railway Track & Structures recently learned that Indiana University Transportation professor Dr. George M. Smerk, Jr., died last year.

Ed. Note: I regret that RT&S only recently learned of the passing of Dr. George Smerk, a noted and retired transportation professor at Indiana University. In addition to teaching and research on transportation and business topics, Dr. Smerk was considered by many the nation’s leading authority on public transportation and rail transit. He has several books to his credit, including The Federal Role in Urban Mass Transportaton, published by Indiana University Press in 1991. One of Dr. Smerk’s most impressive works was the publication of the Encyclopedia of North American Railroads, published by IU Press in 2007. Smerk was co-editor of the Encyclopedia, along with distinguished and prolific transportation historian William D. Middleton and Roberta Diehl, a member of the editorial team at IU Press.

On a personal note, I met Dr. Smerk in 2005 as IU Press was planning and collecting submissions for the Encyclopedia. Upon learning about opportunities to contribute to the Encyclopedia, I worked with Dr. Smerk and Bill Middleton as editors of my 18 entries to this seminal work. I worked closely with them, along with 100 other authors and contributors, for two years as this book came to fruition. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Bill and Dr. Smerk for helping me to hone and sharpen my writing and research skills, and was honored to be a part of this project.

On a separate note, my understanding is that Dr. Smerk prepared a manuscript on the history of what became the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, but it was never published because publishers said that it was too long. I’m not sure, but I thought I heard that Dr. Smerk didn’t want to leave anything out, so it remained unpublished. If anyone has any details on this manuscript or has a copy, I’d love to hear from you.

Dr. Smerk was also the spark plug behind a series of scholarly books on railroad history, management, and memoir, published by Indiana University Press, called Railroads Past and Present, a collection which has grown to nearly 30 volumes. When Dr. Smerk was no longer able to remain involved in the series, the work was assumed by colleagues in railroading and continues to this day.

Below is Dr. Smerk’s obituary, which profiles his distinguished career and legacy in research, teaching, and preparing many students for careers in public transportation. Our condolences go out to Dr. Smerk’s family and all of those who miss him. DCL


Dr. George M. Smerk, Jr.


Dr. George Martin Smerk Jr., age 90, of Bloomington, IN, passed away Saturday, August 12, 2023, at Stonecroft Health Campus of natural causes. George was born July 8, 1933, to George and Alice Smerk in Philadelphia, PA. It was there that his love for public transportation was born – a suburban trolley line ran just behind his childhood home.

After graduating from Haverford Township High School in 1951, he went on to study at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where he earned a Business Administration degree in 1955. It was there that he met his future wife Mary Ann White while participating in theater productions. While serving a two-year enlistment in the Army, he earned an MBA from Bradley University (1957) and married Mary Ann on July 6, 1957.

While George was working in the Illinois Central Railroad freight traffic office in Chicago, they had their daughter Caroline Mary Smerk in September 1959. In 1960, the family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he went on to earn his DBA at Indiana University in 1963. While working at the University of Maryland, George and Mary Ann adopted their son Paul in 1964. In 1966, the family moved back to Bloomington where George was a professor in the IU School of Business until he retired from teaching in 2003 at age 70. Mary Ann played a significant role as an editor and sounding board throughout his career.

George’s passion for all things transportation was reflected in the classes he taught, the books and articles he wrote, the countless talks and speeches he gave, and the hours he spent mentoring former students. He founded the Institute for Urban Transportation at Indiana University (1969-2005), which was later designated a Center for Transit Research and Management Development by the Federal Transit Administration. In 1972 he helped create Bloomington Transit. He was an integral part of saving the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad (the last electric interurban line) and served as the governor’s sole appointee on the board of its governing body: the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. Later in his career he was executive director of Indiana University’s Transportation Services and also editor of the Railroads Past and Present series at Indiana University Press. A highlight among his numerous awards was being named “Sagamore of the Wabash” (the highest award an individual can receive for service to the state of Indiana) by both Governor Otis Bowen (1980) and Governor Robert Orr (1988).

Although his work in the field of transportation is widely respected, it was George’s enthusiasm in the classroom that created one of his greatest legacies: the scores of respected transit professionals working across the United States fondly known as “Smerkies”. While receiving the American Public Transportation Association’s Lifetime of Academic Distinction award, George proudly reflected “One of the joys of teaching has been to see my students grow into public transit colleagues. I’ve always felt that I was one of the luckiest people in the world.”

George also had passions that extended beyond transportation and his family. He was an active member of St. Charles Catholic church for over 60 years. He loved to read and collected thousands of books that covered a wide range of topics including art, railroads, architecture, streetcars, movies, buses, history, subways, cartoons, cable cars, and politics. (OK, so perhaps these other passions often back to transportation.) He was also known for his love of old movies, musicals, and radio shows. His family always thoroughly enjoyed the one of a kind hand-drawn winter and holiday themed cartoon gift tags he created for each holiday gift he wrapped.

George was preceded in death by his wife of 54 years Mary Ann (White), daughter Caroline, sister Alene Smerk, mother Alice W. Smerk, and father George M. Smerk Sr. He is survived by his son Paul and daughter-in-law Wendy (Bloomington, IN).

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Public Transportation Foundation’s Dr. George M. Smerk Scholarship fund.

George’s family would like to express their thanks to the many friends and caregivers who supported him in his later years. Special gratitude goes to his physical therapy angel, personal aides, and the extended family of back porch club members (a.k.a. “the liar’s club”).

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