Dr. Russell “Russ” Smiley, creator of a popular healing arts program at Normandale Community College, touched thousands of lives as a master tai chi practitioner.
Smiley, 64, of Bloomington, died March 10. He was eulogized at the college last week, and honored as well at a World Tai Chi Day gathering Saturday in Bloomington. Friends, colleagues and former students spoke of a natural-born teacher who helped bring to western culture the traditional Eastern integrative approach of uniting body, mind and soul for health.
“He was a world master, but local,” said Kristianne Seelye, an acupuncturist and close friend of Smiley and his wife, Carole Smiley. “He was so very humble, but he touched people all over the world.”
He grew up in Long Beach, Calif., an athlete since boyhood. After earning a doctorate in health and wellness from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Smiley taught for more than 30 years, beginning as a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. A friend in Superior introduced Smiley to tai chi — the slow, relaxed form of exercise that originated as an internal martial art. Smiley went on to study under two renowned tai chi teachers, Fong Ha and Dr. Paul Lam.
Smiley became one of 11 master trainers for tai chi for arthritis in the nation, and one of a small number around the globe. He was certified as well in the use of tai chi for treating diabetes. At Normandale, his classes filled up and students wrote glowing reviews.
They and friends described Smiley as a compassionate instructor who could be awkward in an endearing way, who loved to laugh, and who taught many to tap into their inner energy and find peace — even veterans struggling with traumatic war memories.
“He wanted to help everybody have the best life they could,” said Carole Smiley, his wife of 32 years. “And he loved that. He found joy and silliness and fun.”
At the memorial service last week, videos from Australia, England and Hawaii showed Smiley practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong, or energy work. In a YouTube video, Lam, director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute, spoke of how he and Smiley saw themselves as “tree farmers, sewing seeds of trees, to make the world a better place” as they taught the healing art.
“He has sewed so many wonderful seeds,” Lam said. “His trees will continue to grow to benefit more and more people. His spirit will live forever to help others.”
Memories were shared as well of his 25 years at the community college. “He just wasn’t an ego-based person,” Carole Smiley said. “He loved teaching at Normandale.”
He worked with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in programs to prevent falls by the elderly, for example, and with the Arthritis Foundation. He taught teachers how to instruct others to perform tai chi while seated.
Russ Smiley had a soft voice and “emitted a calmness” that left others feeling serene, said Cynthia Carow-Schiebe, a co-worker in Normandale’s health department.
On March 8, Smiley and another health instructor were on campus, leading a group of student leaders from all different ethnicities on snowshoes through woods. They sat to talk about leadership. Smiley toppled face first in the snow. As the instructor performed CPR on Smiley, the 13 students formed a circle and prayed. Two days later, at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, the quiet professor died of a heart blockage.
In addition to wife, he is survived by his mother, Barbara, and sister Marilyn. To see Lam’s video of Smiley’s life, go www.startribune.com/a2221.