Esmond 'Doug' Smith was one of Portsmouth’s ‘unsung heroes’

Mr. Smith, who died Saturday, was the driving force behind town’s 375th celebration

By Jim McGaw
Posted 10/15/19

PORTSMOUTH — As a passionate promoter of local history, Esmond “Doug” Smith, Jr. had his hands in nearly everything that celebrated days gone by in Portsmouth.

Whether it …

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Esmond 'Doug' Smith was one of Portsmouth’s ‘unsung heroes’

Mr. Smith, who died Saturday, was the driving force behind town’s 375th celebration

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — As a passionate promoter of local history, Esmond “Doug” Smith, Jr. had his hands in nearly everything that celebrated Portsmouth's days gone by.

Whether it was a “history comes alive” program at the Portsmouth Historical Society, a Portsmouth Community Theater play about the mysterious 1673 death of local resident Rebecca Cornell, a fêting of the mayor of Portsmouth, England at the Glen Manor House, or the opening of the Portsmouth History Center at the local library, he was always there, front and center.

Mr. Smith, a considered to be the architect of the Portsmouth 375th Anniversary Celebration in 2013, died Saturday at the age of 78 after a long bout with cancer. The retired U.S. Navy captain and intelligence officer leaves his wife Nanci, a son, a daughter, and two stepdaughters.

“He was the heart of the Historical Society, and history in general, since he was chairman of the 375th,” said Town Historian Jim Garman, past president of the Society and a member of its board of directors.

He recalled receiving an e-mail from Mr. Smith in 2012, inviting him to attend the first planning meeting for a year-long series of events to celebrate the town’s founding in 1638. Mr. Garman ended up doing 12 lectures on local history as part of the 375th celebration, which culminated in a town-wide parade on Labor Day Weekend in 2013. 

Mr. Smith was chairman of the Portsmouth 375th Steering Committee, and his energy in promoting the year-long celebration was palpable, Mr. Garman said.

“He was a really good guy for public relations and events,” he said. “He had so much enthusiasm in getting people involved in the community, and so much drive about getting the word out about things. A good man.”

Richard Talipsky, the town’s director of business development and the Portsmouth Historical Society’s recording secretary, also recalled his friend with fondness.

“He was one of the unsung heroes of the community and was always coming up with new ideas,” Mr. Talipsky said. “He was the architect of the 2013 375th celebration. He brought together groups of people and he’s the guy who made things happen.”

However, the 375th celebration was just one of many of Mr. Smith’s initiatives, he said.

“He started our ‘Portsmouth This Week’ program seven years ago and was the host of over 250 shows,” Mr. Talipsky said, referring to the online and cable access TV show that spotlights people and events around town.

He also credited Mr. Smith with helping to revive interest in the Portsmouth Historical Society five years ago. 

“It had a membership of less than 100, and now the Society has a membership of over 600 families and a lot of that is testament to Doug’s initiative. He will be greatly missed in the community,” Mr. Talipsky said.

Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. paid tribute to Mr. Smith at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting. A fellow Navy veteran, the administrator said Mr. Smith served his country in some of the most demanding jobs in the most vulnerable areas of the world. 

He was also a kind man, Mr. Rainer said.

“He was one of the first people in Portsmouth to reach out to me when I arrived. I will sorely miss him,” he said.

‘Loved Col. Barton’

Like other local history enthusiasts, Mr. Smith had his favorite characters from Portsmouth’s past.

“He loved Col. Barton and he would even impersonate him,” said Mr. Garman.

As a major in the Rhode Island troops in 1777, Barton commanded 38 men and six officers who paddled five whaleboats from Warwick Neck to Portsmouth during a midnight raid which ended with the capture of Major Gen. Richard Prescott at British headquarters.

Mr. Smith was vice president of the Portsmouth Historical Society in July 2018 when the organization promoted a special event in which sea kayakers re-traced Col. Barton’s route across Narragansett Bay, landing at Weaver Cove.

“When you think about everything that could have gone wrong but didn’t … you almost never have a military mission like that,” an excited Mr. Smith said at the time.

The “Barton’s Raid” kayak trip was repeated this summer, but Mr. Smith was too ill to attend.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.