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November-December 2012

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In Memoriam: Bill Smith (1924–2012)

On 23 March 2012 William “Bill” Smith, of Broomfield, Colorado, passed away. Bill was a lifelong mineral collector, wonderful friend, and excellent writer, sharing his mineral knowledge through magazine guest editorials and articles, book editing, and several guides to famous mineral localities in Pakistan, Bolivia, the former Soviet Union, and China. He was fond of calling these guides “Gazetteers.” He also loved showing his mineral collection, especially to those keenly interested in learning about minerals. Although most of us knew the “collector/writer/friend” Bill Smith, few knew the World War II marine, husband, mathematician, code breaker, and super computer expert.

Bill was born on 18 December 1924 in Chicago, Illinois, to Helen Christine Aeberly, a single mother. His formative years were spent growing up in Chicago's tough North Side during the Great Depression. At an early age, Bill became interested in the arts and sciences, and by the time he was twelve years old, he was a regular visitor to Chicago's Field Museum. Here his interest in collecting minerals was sparked. By age fifteen, he had scraped together enough money to take a solo trip to Michigan's famed Copper Country for his first big mineral collecting experience. After collecting for days, he shipped home 30 pounds of mineral specimens from the Houghton-area mines, creating the foundation of his future mineral collection.

Bill left home in 1941 at the age of sixteen. With him was a letter from his mother stating that he was eighteen so he could join the marines. Bill completed two tours in the South Pacific during World War II, serving as an aviator on a two-man bomber crew. He was first stationed on Guadalcanal during the intense fight to capture that famous Japanese-held island.

Between deployments, Bill married his childhood sweetheart, Rosalie Virginia Loeser. At the end of the war, Bill returned home to Rosalie and their first child, Susan Gaye. He took advantage of the GI Bill, gaining admission to the University of Chicago where he fell in love with mathematics and writing. Four years later, in 1949, Bill graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics. He and Rosalie had a second child, Kathryn Claire, and soon moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where, after two years, Bill received his master's degree in mathematics specializing in abstract algebra.

In 1951 Bill was hired by the newly formed Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), later known as the National Security Agency (NSA). Abstract algebra is a key component in cryptanalysis, or code breaking, and he spent the next thirty years working at, and rising up through the ranks of, the NSA. At one point his staff consisted of more than three-hundred and fifty people. Bill was promoted from G-7 to G-15 in twelve years, an impressive feat.

In 1952, Bill and Rosalie had twins, Barbara Diane and Rebecca Irene, followed by Zachary Owen in 1956. Bill renewed his passion for mineral collecting, so when he arrived in Washington, D.C., for his AFSA training, he immediately rushed to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) on Constitution Avenue to see the mineral collection. Soon, he received a back-stage pass from department head Bill Foshag and his assistant, George Switzer. Foshag passed away shortly thereafter, and Bill became a close friend of Switzer who, during his tenure as curator, persuaded Harry Winston to donate the Hope diamond, a treasure that Bill would get to hold in his hands. Bill and his family traveled around the United States throughout the 1950s on camping and hiking trips, often centered on meeting prominent mineral dealers and collectors.

Bill's list of friends reads like a “who's who” of the mineral world. He networked with dealers, collectors, and museums in an effort to see and learn as much as he could in the time he had to devote to his mineral collecting passion. Bill met Martin Ehrmann during one of Ehrmann's frequent visits to the NMNH to show Switzer the best gems and minerals from his worldwide acquisition trips. With the museum always getting first pick, Bill would follow up with purchasing such treasures as a 29-carat gem peridot crystal from Burma (Myanmar), purchased in 1955 for $25, and a 50-carat tanzanite gem crystal in 1968 for $200! (In 1994 Bill and Carol wrote a wonderful article about Ehrmann that was published in the Mineralogical Record [Sept./Oct.]. They had written another great article on the Moritz and Adolf Lechner collection in 1991, published in the same periodical [Nov./Dec.].)

The family moved to England for three years, from 1963 to 1966. Bill was “on loan” to the British signal intelligence people, and while there, he traveled extensively throughout Europe visiting museums and private mineral collections—all the time camping, hiking, and mountain climbing with his family.

Around 1966, Bill's group, together with their British counterparts and with crucial help from other agencies, cracked something very big in the signal intelligence world. This piece of work was so big that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said it was worth the entire intelligence budget of the United States of America for that year. This earned Bill the Meritorious Civilian Service Award and a promotion to GS-16, a ranking equivalent to that of a general.

Bill lost Rosalie to cancer in 1976. But two years later his fortunes changed when he found and married the second love of his life, Carol Lehman Daughety. Soon after, in 1980, Bill retired from the NSA and went to work for Cray Research, Inc. For seven years, Bill traveled throughout the United States and Europe selling Cray computers to organizations such as the CIA, General Electric, and various physics laboratories, all at $20 million each.

In 1987 Bill decided it was finally time to retire. Now in Colorado, Bill and Carol could indulge their respective passions: skiing and biking for Bill, orchid collecting for Carol.

During the next twenty-five years, they displayed more than fifty mineral cases at such shows as those in Tucson and Denver. Also together they authored more than a dozen articles and editorials. They edited the book Fine Minerals of China (by Guanghua Liu, AAA Minerals, 2006) and wrote the chapter on gold and silver minerals in F. John Barlow's book (The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection, Sanco Publishing, 1996). Bill also served on the Board of Directors of the Mineralogical Record for six years.

The Smiths' collection eventually morphed into one specializing in native elements, sulfides, sulfosalts, English minerals, minerals of the northern areas of Pakistan, and hematite. Their most beloved suite consists of silver minerals and contains an impressive number of species including many rarities.

During the 2000s, the Smiths started hosting parties at their home in Broomfield, Colorado, during the September Denver Show. This was the “must do” event of the show, and people vied for an invitation. The list always included the world's top mineral enthusiasts. The food was delicious and the conversation never boring. The parties would not end until the last person volunteered to go home.

Bill passed away from lung cancer after a year-long battle that began in April 2011. He is survived by Carol; his children, Susan Smith, Kathryn Shuey, Rebecca Smith, and Zachary Smith; his stepdaughter, Theresa Hayes; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.


This tribute could not have been written without the support of Carol Smith, whose permission to let me use Bill's memoirs was invaluable, and of Bill, who took the time to “write everything down” so that we could all pay attention.

Bryan Lees is president of Collector's Edge Minerals, Inc., in Golden, Colorado, a company that specializes in mining and marketing mineral specimens. 

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