In Memoriam: Britt Smith
(with extracts from eulogies by Gary Smith and Keshab Pradhan as well as editing by Jean Smith)
With a twist of irony, Britt Smith passed away on 7 December 2007, the 67th wedding anniversary of his marriage to Jean Brown, following a year long deterioration from Alzheimer's disease. His memorial service was held on 20 December 2007 and attended by many in the Kent community, church and rhododendron friends. Britt will be remembered as one of only two recipients of the ARS Pioneer Achievement Award who were so honored while they were alive (the remaining one being Keshab Pradhan of Sikkim) as well as recipient of the ARS Gold Medal.
Britt was born in Portland, Oregon (home of the founding of the ARS), August 15, 1916. He received his degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Oregon State College in 1938 and went directly to work for The Boeing Company after being told "he was of more value to the US in airplane engineering than he would be enlisting in the US armed forces." His career would take him not only to Seattle but also to Ohio and back to Oregon - a career which challenged engineering of airplanes from wooden thru advanced materials. He worked through the propeller, jet and space ages of aviation, ultimately retiring from The Boeing Company in 1979. He was a licensed pilot and flew his own airplane for a number of years.
In the 1960s, as he was contemplating retirement, Britt thought a hobby of photographing alpine flowers (so abundant in the Pacific Northwest) would "give him something to do after retirement, thereby avoiding an early death." Thus entered friend Dr. Frank Mossman from the Smith's Portland days. Frank brought a trailer of plants to Britt's and Jean's new home, took Britt visiting the nurserymen and plant aficionados in the Kent/Tacoma, Washington, area (the likes of whom were Hjalmar Larson, Jim Caperci and Halfdan Lem). That day changed Britt's life - from then on, photography only augmented his dedication to RHO-DO-DEN-DRONS. (Britt never lapsed into the slang of rhody or rhodies!). Britt and Frank (as well as wives) spent 16 years exploring, collecting and documenting (both written and photographically) R. occidentale along the Oregon/California coast. The best of these collectings reside in the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Garden at the Lake Wilderness Arboretum southeast of Seattle.
The purchase of five acres on the Kent east hill provided the laboratory for his ensuing immersion into the growing, hybridizing and collecting of rhododendrons and magnolias. Ann and I became immersed through the news from a neighbor, while we were constructing our house on our own five acres, that "this guy was selling big rhododendrons from his place for $5 a plant!" With neither a plan nor a well to provide water, we journeyed to Britt's for a pickup load of these bargains. We hilled them in out in the woods that first summer and then commenced the process of integrating them in our plantings when the house was completed the next year.
Chance interaction with Hjalmar Larson led to the involvement of Britt in the kingdom of Sikkim in the Himalayas of northern India. He journeyed to Sikkim on seven occasions, some with only Jean and others with groups of rhody enthusiasts. His last journey in 2000 (in which I was fortunate to participate) was an emotional one - almost as if he sensed it could be his last. These trips led to the deep friendships he developed with individuals in India. He and Jean met with the late King (Chogyal) P.T. Namgyal and pleaded for the need to preserve the rhododendron habitats in Sikkim. His encouragement of the importance of their rhododendron assets led to establishment of many rhododendron preserves, a point in one which is now labeled "BRITT'S POINT." Recognition that they were custodians of a valuable plant heritage, they were urged to do much to preserve that heritage. The depth of the Smith's Sikkim friendship was demonstrated on his passing by Keshab Pradhan's organization of prayers at the Enchay Monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the publishing of an obituary in the Gangtok paper as well as on Keshab's website.
Britt's precision and his vocation guided his daily activities. He planned, he engineered projects, he read, he spoke - to me he was a man of nobility, honor, rectitude, courage and virtue - to me, he was a Renaissance Man! As Mark Twain said, "There's nothing more tiresome than an unrelieved good example." His speaking abilities led to my recommending him as a prime participant in the New Zealand Rhododendron Conference in 1993. His reception was wonderful and he and Jean developed lasting friendships on that continent as well as on trips to England and Scotland. I became involved with him early as members of the Budget Review Committee for the Kent schools. We worked together to instill fiscal responsibility and accountability in that education operation - I'm sure the superintendent was not sorry to have our interest move elsewhere other than his budget/expenditure performance!
Britt was undoubtedly most frustrated by his progressing Alzheimer's disease. He likened his living experience to "being on a very poorly organized trip" - he never knew where he would be the next day nor what the schedule would be. He really "wanted to go back to Portland" (the scene of his boyhood).
Britt's legacy is for the benefit of the ARS - he hybridized, collected, registered and propagated (and distributed) 15 named hybrids/species clones and his efforts continue through the efforts of Stu Imre, John Winberg and Doreen Johnson at Lake Tapps Rhododendrons in Bonney Lake, Wash. We'll see more introductions in the future of Britt's worthy efforts, I'm sure.
May we remember the good this virtuous man has brought to us. He lived his life under the banner which read "LEAVE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE THAN WHEN YOU FOUND IT." Britt now joins the wonderful company of Berg, Larson, Lem, Caperci, Davidian, Leach, Tse Ten Tashi and so many others from whom we have benefited. Britt, thanks for a job well done and, as he admonished us so many times on departing his company, "Don't get into anything you can't get out of." We're sure he is now at peace in a place "he doesn't want to get out of."