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September 20, 2014

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GRANDPARENTING:

Why a 6 1/2-pound baby girl is pulling Neal Smatresk away from UNLV

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Justin M. Bowen

UNLV President Neal Smatresk moderates his American class Tuesday, November 23, 2010 during the Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Neal Smatresk

Head Football coach Bobby Hauck, left, is congratulated by UNLV President Neal Smatresk by the Fremont cannon before a painting ceremony on UNLV campus Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. The UNLV football team beat Reno Saturday 27-22 to break an eight-year losing streak in the rivalry game and gain possession of the Fremont cannon. Launch slideshow »

Let’s get this straight: Neal Smatresk, the popular president of UNLV, who makes close to a half-million dollars a year and is pursuing various game-changing projects, now wants to take over at a university most of us had never heard of, in a town where the largest private employer is Peterbilt trucks, the summers are hot and humid, and wailing tornado sirens are tested monthly.

The move also puts him within an hour’s drive of Sidney Lynn, his first grandchild.

And there you have it.

“It's absolutely not surprising that he’d move to be closer to her,” said Vern Bengtson, a grandfather four times over.

Bengtson speaks not only of personal experience but based on his research into grandparents going back to 1969. The transition from parent to grandparent, he found, is especially dramatic among aging men because it reflects a new and refreshing course in pursuing life goals.

“Usually, until you become a grandparent, you’ve been measuring time since your own birth,” said Bengtson, a research professor of social work at the University of Southern California. “But now you start to realize you have a finite time before you leave this earth and you wonder how you’ll spend it.

“Will you maintain the grind and continue to try to accumulate as much status and money as you can, or are there other, more important, values than accumulation, which until now may have been the driving force in your life as a high-achieving male?”

None of this is to suggest that Smatresk, 62, won’t throw himself into the presidency of the University of North Texas, assuming officials there affirm a search selection’s recommendation. He is the only finalist for the job.

But now — as is the case with countless grandparents who have come before him — Smatresk also sees himself more fully in the chain of family history where “all of a sudden you are the connection between your grandparents and your grandchildren,” Bengtson said. “It’s when you become a grandparent that this becomes very clear.”

It’s also license, grandparents know, to relate to a child differently than how you related to your own children.

“As a parent, you spent many years having to be strict, getting your children to do their homework, that sort of thing,” Bengtson said. “By the time you’re a grandparent, you know that it’s more important to be warm, loving and affirming — and to have fun with them.”

Smatresk, who became a grandfather in June, said he can hardly wait. The research conducted by Bengtson with hundreds of grandparents could have started and finished with Smatresk, he so closely fits the overall profile.

“I’d been encouraging my son and daughter-in-law to have a baby for quite a while,” Smatresk said. “My wife said it was utterly obnoxious, and I said my biological clock is ticking.

“I’m framing my life less in terms of career and climbing up a ladder and more about what I’ll be leaving behind, and focusing on my family’s history and trajectory, and the joy that a new grandbaby brings. It is indescribable, something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

“I don’t want anyone to think that I’m diminishing my opportunity (at the University of North Texas). It’s a terrific opportunity. But the combo of being satisfied professionally and being close to my family — who would pass on that?”

Why does there seem to be greater joy in grandparenting than raising your own children?

“When you’re talking about your own kids, you’re concerned about their behavior, of making progress, of eating the right foods, of good manners and good grades — all while leading your own frenetic life of building a career, taking care of business and looking out for the security of your family," Smatresk said. "You don’t have the time to enjoy your kids as much as you ought to.

“But being a grandparent? Unadulterated enjoyment and love.”

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