BREMERTON — William Earl Smith Jr., a submarine captain who saved lives during a distinguished Navy career and later also helped to resuscitate the downtown core of his adopted home, died last week. He was 85.
Smith died Friday of cardiovascular complications, his wife, Sandra Smith said.
A talented athlete in football, golf and baseball in his youth, Smith ultimately served on submarines in the Pacific before commanding the bases at Pearl Harbor and Bangor. In retirement, he served as the region’s first economic development director and a linchpin in bringing the Turner Joy Museum Ship to Bremerton and the resurrecting the Admiral Theatre.
Through it all, Smith said it was her husband’s ability of connecting with people that led to his success in the Navy and his life. With a southern charm, “he had a knack for making you feel important and welcome,” said Smith, who summed up his approach in life by a Maya Angelou quote: “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did. They will remember how you made them feel.”
Smith grew up in Mobile, Alabama. A gifted athlete who grew to 6 feet 2 inches tall, Smith lettered 14 times in sports while at University Military School. He was both the captain of the Naval Academy football team and the school’s No. 1 golfer in the same year, a sport he picked up at age 4. His batting average in baseball was so high the coach at the academy tried to get him out of football, according to his nomination for the Mobile, Alabama, sports hall of fame. Smith was a part of the football team that rose to No. 3 in the nation and beat Ole Miss 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl in 1955.
He served aboard several diesel-powered submarines in the Pacific, including the USS Tiru, where he’s credited with saving the lives of several crew members. A torpedo malfunction during an exercise in 1962 led to 18 men being overwhelmed by toxic gases. Smith and three others were able to get them out alive.
Smith met his wife, Sandra, herself a retired Navy captain, at a war game exercise in Japan in 1979. She was from Seattle and after her husband’s command of the base at Pearl Harbor, the two came to Kitsap in 1982.
His wife knew he’d adjusted to Northwest life when the scratch golfer came in from a day on the links, saying he’d played through the drizzle. “You have acclimated,” she remembers telling him.
After retiring from a last stint at the Navy’s now-defunct base at Sand Point in Seattle, he quickly got involved in the civilian world. Mary DesMarais, who he’d go to work with at the county’s economic development council, said his Navy experience translated perfectly as the county’s first director.
“The man had run an entire Navy base that had a whole lot of pieces to it. The puzzle of economic development had a lot of pieces, too,” she said. “He listened to people and he never made us feel like we were the low man on the totem pole.”
He worked in vain to keep the famed World War II battleship the USS Missouri in Bremerton, though the city would eventually watch it sail for Hawaii. However, Smith was pivotal in working with congressional, Navy and city leaders to bring another Navy ship here as a museum: the USS Turner Joy, which remains on the Bremerton waterfront.
Only a hip replacement slowed him down from volunteering aboard the museum ship after it arrived, his wife said.
As downtown Bremerton lost business to Silverdale, Smith eyed bringing something back to downtown. He was instrumental in helping restore the Admiral Theatre, writing grants, fundraising and volunteering countless hours to get the 1942-built property up and running following its closure in the 1980s.
He remained on its board for 26 years and had an office inside until 2016. But he had no computer — he’d carefully write and snip out language to plug into grant applications by hand. He carried a pen with him that said “Earl’s Computer,” on it. Brian Johnson, the Admiral’s executive director, recalled at foundation board meetings, Smith would show up with a thick binder that had detailed notes and bylaws. He’d find references to almost anything, Johnson said.
“He had every record,” he said.
The Smiths have always been steadfast in their support of the military following their own service in the Navy, continuing to co-chair the annual Veterans Day program in Kitsap County.
In a 2012 interview published by the Navy, Smith himself summed up his life of leadership.
“The people are what make it,” he said. “The Navy’s not the ships, it’s not any thing, it’s the people you serve with.”
Smith, who lived in South Kitsap, is survived by his wife, his brother and his three children.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date, Sandra Smith said. Her husband is to be buried at sea, his remains scattered by a submarine not unlike the ones he served on at a younger age.
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