June 9, 2023

Andréa Smith: Tombstone Teacher

Fredericksburg is home to many historic landmarks, but graveyards may not immediately come to mind. The St. George’s, Masonic, Confederate and City cemeteries are all within walking distance of Mary Washington. Nearby is Shiloh, a historic burial ground for the City’s three sister African American congregations, as well as Fredericksburg National Cemetery, final resting place for more than 15,000 Union soldiers.

Professor of Historic Preservation Andrea Livi Smith

Associate Professor of Historic Preservation Andrea Livi Smith. Photo by Matthew Sanders.

All those ghost stories and headstones are enough to frighten some, but Associate Professor of Historic Preservation Andréa Livi Smith’s students sign up for a semester full of them.

When her Historic Fredericksburg Foundation cemetery tours drew crowds a couple years ago, Smith decided to offer her students the chance to explore these haunts for themselves. Now in her second semester teaching the 400-level historic preservation course “Graves and Burial Grounds,” Smith is still amazed by the waitlist that crops up for the class.

She believes burial sites say lots about the lives of the dead, and her students’ final projects – including the documentation of concrete graves in Fredericksburg, a brochure of a local family cemetery and headstones sculpted in 18th-century designs – reflect that notion.

Hired in 2008, Smith landed her “dream job,” she said, since UMW’s program is revered in historic preservation circles. Her days are spent like any other professor’s, with plenty of teaching, grading and advising. But Smith’s particular gig scares up some additional duties, like surveying historic houses and photographing gravestones.

Now that’s spooky.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Helping students discover their passion. I’ve never had someone come to UMW saying they desperately want to become a preservation planner. But some realize they love it and subsequently go into that career. Knowing I played a part in that discovery is an incredible feeling.

Q: The most challenging?
A: Balancing all that needs to get done. Also, getting enough sleep.

Q: What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?
A: I once challenged myself to quote The Princess Bride in every class until someone called me on it. No one ever did, so I kept it up all semester long.

Q: What in your office is meaningful to you?
A: I have a lot of LEGOs, including a mausoleum designed by a student who took the Graves course.

Q: What’s your favorite burial site?
A: I love the “Woodmen of the World” tombstones, which all look like logs or tree trunks. Woodmen was – and still is – an insurance company that used to provide gravestones for their members; apparently it was great advertising.

Q: People are often superstitious or scared of cemeteries and burial sites, especially at Halloween. What would you say to help quell their fears?
A: In the 19th century, there were no public parks, so people went to cemeteries to enjoy the outdoors. Just imagine families picnicking and children playing tag among the gravestones. Or is that even more spooky?