Paul Ferris Smith, who first saw Woods Hole when the Navy employed him here during World War II and who became one of the village’s most conspicuous and enduring presences, died June 27. He was 92.
Mr. Smith was working as an engineer at the Snow Nabstedt Gear Corporation in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1943, building transmissions for PT boats, when he heard of a job opening at the Navy Underwater Explosives Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He’d been graduated a year earlier from Yale, where he’d majored in electrical engineering, and was now attached to the Navy Bureau of Ordinance. His work at Nabstedt was boring him; he applied for the job at the Oceanographic and got it.
He had never heard of Woods Hole. “I took the train from New Haven,” he remembered years later, “and sent Mary Lou”—Mary Louise Cole, who was soon to be his bride—“a letter saying I was going to Woods Hole, Rhode Island.”
He soon learned different, and with the discovery a lifelong attachment was born. He would return to the Oceanographic as a researcher in underwater acoustics every summer until 1955, when the Rockefeller Institute at the Marine Biological Laboratory hired him as a fulltime researcher in electronic instrumentation, and Woods Hole became his home. As his affection for it deepened, he became an ardent advocate of preserving open land and historic buildings, in Woods Hole and beyond. He was a board member, president, and vice president of the Woods Hole Historical Museum. He served two terms as a town meeting member from Precinct One.
Paul Ferris Smith was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1921, the second child of Harry Hedley and Gertrude Ashton Smith. The family lived in North Haven, Connecticut; Harry Smith was an executive with the YMCA in New Haven.
Mr. Smith attended the Mt. Hermon School in Northfield, where he excelled in the study of physics and was a member of the soccer and swimming teams. He was graduated from Mt. Hermon in 1939.
He entered Yale that fall. “I worked very hard,” he remembered. “I was determined to do well and I got moderate grades.” He was on the boxing team, and rowed on the crew for three years. He sang in the Glee Club, which traveled to South America in the summer of 1941 as envoys of President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. When the war came he agreed to work for the Navy after graduation under an arrangement whereby he would complete his studies in three years instead of four. He attended classes through the summer of 1942 and received his diploma that December.
While he was at Yale, Mr. Smith attended the wedding of his brother, Robert Ashton Smith, as best man. The bride’s vivacious dark-haired sister, Mary Louise Cole, was a maid of honor. “She was beautiful,” Mr. Smith said later, “she was an athlete, she liked the things I liked, and was just so intelligent, so wonderfully attractive in every way.”
Miss Cole was a student at Wells College in Aurora, New York; Mr. Smith began driving there weekends. They were married in December 1943.
Mr. Smith by this time was a Navy officer with the Ordnance Bureau in Washington, DC, having received his commission at Annapolis. His bride returned to Wells to finish her senior year, and in the new summer, 1944, the Navy sent Ensign Smith back to Woods Hole, to the Underwater Explosives Laboratory at the Oceanographic, this time as liaison officer.
After the War Mr. Smith returned to Yale, where he received a master’s degree in education in 1948. He taught physics at St. Mark’s School in Northborough for two years, and for three years taught and conducted research at the Marine Laboratory of Miami University. A daughter, Deborah, had been born in 1946. A second daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1950, and Prudence in 1954. The growing family spent its Woods Hole summers in the old Faye carriage house on Water Street, which was property of the Oceanographic.
It was December when the Smiths arrived in Woods Hole in 1955 to stay. They lived for a short time in a rented house on High Street, then Mr. Smith built a prefab house set back in the trees off Church Street. He never left it. A fourth daughter, Charity, was born in 1963.
In 1962 Mr. Smith left the MBL to help found Geodyne Inc., which began in what is now the game room of the Woods Hole Inn. Geodyne was a pioneering company in the design and manufacture of oceanographic instruments. In 1965 EG&G bought Geodyne and put Mr. Smith in charge of its environmental consultants division, whose assignment was to devise ways to make ocean research environmentally safe. He joined Benthos Inc. in 1978 as manager of business development, and in 1983 was appointed to the new position of staff oceanographer at Ferranti-ORE in Falmouth Heights, a manufacturer of underwater instruments.
He retired in 1986 and began a second career as a community activist with the Woods Hole Historical Museum. He was elected to town meeting in 1996 and 1999. He also was a founder and past president of Neighborhood Falmouth, an organization geared toward helping seniors continue to live independently in the community. The Smiths traveled often in these years; Mr. Smith was fond of giving slide shows from their trips at the Woods Hole Library.
Mr. Smith fit the ideal of the Renaissance man, vigorous both physically and intellectually. The physicist, engineer and oceanographer was a tennis player and a crack sailor. He ran the Falmouth Road Race. He built model ships. He wrote, painted, and took pictures. He sang in the Falmouth Men’s Chorus and the Interfaith Choir. He played the recorder and the banjo. Lithe and graceful to the end of his life, he dressed with impeccable but quiet style. Formal attire, always, included a bow tie.
Mr. Smith wrote a children’s book, “Has Anyone Seen the Glee?” in 2006. The Glee was a pram Mr. Smith built for his daughters when they were girls; after a blizzard carried her away Mr. Smith wrote a letter to Henry Beetle Hough, editor of The Vineyard Gazette, asking if anyone had seen the Glee. The book is the story of her loss and recovery. Gerree Trudeau, reviewing it for The Enterprise, concluded, “It’s a sweet story by a genuine gentlemen.”
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, July 5, at 1 PM at the Church of the Messiah, 22 Church Street, Woods Hole. Burial will follow at the Church of the Messiah Cemetery.
A reception will be held following the burial at Mr. Smith’s home, 11 Whitney Road, Woods Hole.