Richard Norman Smith
Oct. 19, 1921 — Nov. 18, 2016
On Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, just before sunrise, Dick Smith, a modest, neighborly, kind-hearted, nature-loving, beloved serial raconteur and ubiquitous volunteer, died peacefully in his sleep. Throughout his final days and hours, Smith’s loving family was with him.
Dick was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on October 19, 1921; raised and educated in Bergenfield, N.J. (Tenafly High, Class of 1939); was drafted in his second year of college to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and served three years in WWII as a bombsight mechanic, section chief, being discharged as a technical sergeant, 466th Bomb Group, in October 1945. Smith returned to university, earning a Bachelor of Science in forestry from the University of Massachusetts and continued his graduate studies at Yale School of Forestry before “marriage and three children altered his plans.” In 1950, while on assignment in Ely, Minn., Richard met Betty Murnan, an English teacher from the University of Iowa. The two married on Oct. 21, 1951, and spent the next decade transferring to various forest service posts in the upper Midwest, often living in pioneer conditions. A UWM job for Betty plus a USFS administrative job for Dick promised better elementary schools. So, in 1961 the Smiths moved to Waukesha.
Richard was a devoted family man, very proud father and doting grandfather. Smith delighted in reading to his children and grandchildren, and instilling in them the wonder and beauty of nature (not to mention the safest-most-efficient-and-one-exact-right-way to do everything). Dick and Betty exemplified for their children curiosity, critical thinking, independence, a sense of social contract and a passion for music. The talented family spent many joyful hours singing together.
Counterbalancing the 24 years spent in his suit-and-tie job, Smith remained inextricably an outdoorsman who became known by his fisherman’s floppy hat. Before long, that white cotton bucket hat became a symbol of his genuine interest in everything and everyone. Undoubtedly, Smith was wearing his signature cap when, in 1994, he wrote: “I’m in my fifth year of driving a Special Ed school bus: with wheelchairs, harnesses, physically and/or mentally handicapped kids, and some in a bilingual program. It’s enlightening and rewarding. I donate a little blood, platelets, and plasma; ring bells for the Salvation Army; help restore a prairie; sing in church choir and Waukesha Choral Union; camp and fish (the latter not enough) for steelhead, browns, muskies, and northerns. After twenty-six years, I gave up teaching defensive driving courses, and I haven’t dumped a canoe since my partner and I dunked on the Flambeau in October. As they say ‘Up North,’ it was a little fresh. There are a few other activities, but this gives the general idea.”
A few other activities, indeed! Over the next 20plus years, Dick Smith continued to be an unstoppable volunteer and endeavored to be a friend to everyone he’d meet.
In 2014, Smith was awarded the United Way Volunteer of the Year Award for his many altruistic activities, including 20-plus years delivering Meals-on-Wheels, as a librarian for the Waukesha Choral Union and laundering “covers” for The Caring Place. Over the 56 years Smith lived in Waukesha, after a full day’s work in Milwaukee as a safety supervisor for the USFS Eastern Region, he volunteered for 25 local organizations. In addition, as a talented bass-baritone, Smith and his wife, professor Betty Murnan-Smith, performed in local operas, sang with Town & Gown/Waukesha Choral Union, and the choir at First Presbyterian Church and acted in plays at Waukesha Civic Theatre and UW-Waukesha. Dick was also active behind the scenes with Par-Cay Players, served as president/house manager/janitor for the Penny Players and as an usher for Waukesha Civic Theatre, and “moved Conne Smith 427 times!”
As an activist, Dick spoke up at civic meetings, advocated for the environment, participated in civil rights marches, and regularly fired off letters to the Freeman editor. No cause too trivial, Dick was dead serious when he confronted a major soup brand on its 1/21 clam-to-potatoes ratio: “How dare you label this Clam Chowder!”
Never one to ignore a soul in need, in 1975, Richard and Betty joined other local volunteers as sponsors of 27 Vietnamese refugees being relocated to Wisconsin. For nearly a year and a half, the Smiths sponsored Qui Van Vo, welcoming him into the family. In turn, Betty and Dick were surrogate parents at Qui’s marriage to Hong “Rose” Nguyen. And before long, the Vo’s honored their Waukesha parents, naming their first child Richard Vo. (In the ineffable circle of life, Richard and Lien Vo are expecting Dick Smith’s seventh great-grandchild!) Because USAAF T/Sgt. R.N. Smith was deployed to the UK on the RMS Queen Mary, Smith is one of seven veterans featured in the 2011 documentary “The Ghost of War,” about the QM’s service as a troop ship in WWII. In April 2015, son Michael escorted his father on the historic Wisconsin Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Smith’s discharge decorations and citations included the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Distinguished Unit Badge.
Smith’s benevolence went beyond donations of time to include philanthropic support of scores of charities including Donna Lexa Community Arts, Food Pantry, Hebron House, Plowshare, Women’s Center, Jubilate Chorale, Waukesha Area Symphonic Band, Waukesha County Land Conservancy, Friends of Mukwonago River, Retzer Nature Center, First Presbyterian Church, and, faithfully, the UW Waukesha and Butler University Murnan-Smith Scholarship for Single Parents.
Richard was preceded in death by his wife, professor Betty Murnan-Smith; sister Marion (Leo) Toffic; and parents, Helen (nee Dwight) Smith and Dr. C. A. Smith.
Richard is survived by his brother, Steven (Eva) Smith of Camden, Maine; daughter Allegra Jrolf of Kansas City, Mo.; sons Michael M. Smith of Waukesha, Timothy D. Smith of Los Angeles and Qui Van (Hong) Vo of San Jose, Calif.; grandchildren in Kansas City: Paula (Matt) Infranca, Alissa (Ryan) Willett, and Joseph (Tifanie) Jrolf; grandchildren in California: Tyler D. Smith, Richard Tuan Vo and Christine Vo (Calvin) Sharpe; and great-grandchildren in Kansas City: Michael, Sophia and Adriana Infranca; Liam Hubbard- Mayes and Jaxton Jrolf; and Anna Willett.
In lieu of flowers, kindly consider a tribute donation to alz.org or to a charity listed above.
For stories about the storyteller, a visitation, memorial service and reception will be held this Saturday, November 26, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, 810 N. East Ave., Waukesha, WI 53186.
Visitation at the church will begin at 12:30 p.m., followed by a memorial service with military honors at 2 p.m. A reception and continued fellowship will immediately follow at the church.
Randle-Dable-Brisk Funeral Home, Crematory and Preplanning Services is honored to serve the family. For further information, please call the funeral home at 262-5474035 or visit our website at www.waukeshafunerals.com for directions or to leave the family an online tribute message.