Dr Geoffrey Smith: 1938 to 2013
By Fiona Smith
Delivered by Fiona Smith during the Funeral Service held in St Laurence Church, Appleton on Thursday 4th July 2013 and officiated by Rev Lyn Sapwell
Thank you for gathering here today to remember the life of my Father, Dr. Geoff Smith.
When we began to look at Dad’s papers we discovered that, with characteristic conscientiousness, and who knows what private courage, he had prepared an account of his life to be read on an occasion such as this. So, much of what you will hear now is in his own words, but I hope he’ll allow the additions I have made.
Dad died last week at The Churchill Hospital in Oxford. His final weeks were not easy, and followed a number of years of ill health. Dad bore all this with great fortitude, and it is with sadness and shock that we are left to acknowledge how the expert attention of the medics, my mother’s dedication, and his own fastidious efforts at self-care were not enough to save him. It is not how any of us would have wanted to say goodbye.
Nor is it how we would wish to remember him. Dad was not one for wallowing in sad thoughts, but set the example of applying himself to what could be done and taking quiet pride in his achievements. He didn’t shout about it, but his application to, and relish of, life are evident in both his professional and personal legacies.
Geoffrey Smith grew up in the Midlands, where his father ran a small farm just outside Stafford. These were attractive surroundings and, although it was wartime when Geoffrey and his sister Jean were young, Dad has told us that his memories are mostly of sunshine and green fields. It was a happy childhood, and he and Jean were close. They spent a great deal of time playing together, and a memory they share is of the handmade wooden cart given to them for Christmas 1943, which they dragged and trundled around the farm for years. Their father nicknamed it “The Nipper Express.”
Another feature of their childhood relationship was the words spoken in their own special language. The inventiveness of this was an early indication of the lively intelligence which was to take Geoffrey a long way. I can’t think of a more appropriate onomatopoeia for ‘chickens’ than the word ‘Wasus’.
Affectionately known within the family as ‘Geoffer’, Dad was cared for devotedly not only by his parents, but also his maternal Grandpa Johnson, and his Uncle Nowell. Some influences from those early years developed into lifelong interests.
First there were the trains. His father liked trains, and built miniature railways on the farm, including a 5 inch gauge passenger-carrying circuit. Geoff, however, inclined towards the big railway. He was inspired by the sight of the major expresses which came thundering through Stafford en route between Euston and the north. In his teenage years, he set out to explore the highways and byways of the railway systems of Britain and Ireland. His first trip away was at the age of just 16, when, with his friend John Anson, he spent a week touring as far north as Inverness on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ ticket, which had cost £5. The travel bug was beginning to bite.
Another friend was Ted Talbot, with whom he made his first overseas trip, on the rail networks of Germany, in 1959. They would go on to share many travelling adventures, as far afield as South Africa, and I know that in recent months Ted’s emails and photographs of locos have been of interest and comfort to Dad while he was confined at home.
Then there was music. My Grandpa liked a good tune. He used to take his family to see touring musicals and opera companies which came to the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton. Geoff developed a lasting interest, later embracing a wide range of classical music. He and my mother had some memorable nights out at the opera before my brother and I came along, and continued to enjoy attending concerts in Oxford until recently. For myself, I find it hard to watch an episode of ‘Inspector Morse’ without being reminded of my Dad: the quintessential quiet Oxford man, whose emotions are more easily read in what he listens to than in what he says.
During Geoffrey’s childhood, in the early post-war years, holidays were modest affairs, but, when he was about 10, his mother took the children to the Isle of Wight. They went to Bembridge, a little resort on the north coast. The weather that August was excellent, and Geoffrey and Jean had a wonderful time building castles and playing cricket on the beach. They could see across the waters of The Solent, and every week one or other of the magnificent Cunard liners, Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, would glide across on the service between Southampton and New York. Little did Geoff realise then that, some 15 years later, he would be setting sail for the United States in one of these impressive vessels.
Back in Stafford, Geoff attended the local grammar school and, encouraged by his mother, who had been a teacher, did well there, eventually obtaining a Scholarship to study Physics at Jesus College, Oxford.
Oxford opened wider horizons. He enjoyed the challenging Physics course and the many undergraduate societies, such as the Railway Society and the Opera Club. Having obtained a good first degree, he was offered the opportunity to work for a doctorate. He undertook a laboratory-based project in atomic spectroscopy. The project went well and, with encouragement from his supervisor, the newly qualified Dr Smith successfully applied for a research position at the Argonne National Laboratory, a large US-government lab just outside Chicago.
He set out for America on the Queen Mary in September, 1963. The Argonne Lab was a stimulating environment with excellent facilities for advanced scientific research, and talented scientists. The generous salary and holidays allowed Geoff to explore the scenic wonders of the U.S.A. and make trips to Mexico and Peru. His family treasured the letters and postcards he sent back.
After 2 years, Geoff returned to a post-doc appointment in Astrophysics at Oxford. In 1969 he was appointed to a University Lecturership, and, at the same time, he was invited to take up a teaching post at Magdalen College, a position that proved so agreeable he was still there 40 years later.
Shortly afterwards, he met Bridget, my mother. They discovered that they both enjoyed country walks and concerts. Their relationship blossomed and they married in 1972, settling into a small house in Cumnor. The family soon began to expand with my arrival, and then Brian’s in ‘75. A larger house was needed and we moved to Southby Close, Appleton. Dad loved this thriving village, with its lovely walks to the bluebell woods, and alongside the River Thames. He has told us one of his special memories of this time was of the walk we would often take past this church, through the woods and around what we called “the assault course”, which was an off-piste route involving fallen trees. As a family, we treasure the memories of some lovely holidays in Devon, North Wales, the Yorkshire Dales, and our paternal grandparent’s home at Coddington in Hereforshire, most of them taken in Dad’s trusty Peugeot 504. We rode on the ‘Great Little Trains’ and ate our sandwiches while gazing on some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes. A succession of dogs joined our family and Dad took pleasure in their companionship. The present incumbent, Tia the labrador, enjoyed taking Dad for a walk until just a few months ago, and on these walks he somtimes met and would have a chat with friends from the village.
Settled in a life of teaching and research, Dad still made occasional visits back to the U.S.A. to gather material. This included astronomical spectroscopy at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. He relished these experiences. A postcard Dad sent back from that trip reads ‘Plenty of wildlife in evidence - even antelope on the runway as our light aircraft landed! Not adapting very well to working at nights and sleeping by day...” As a child I very proud that my father worked observing the stars, but my brother and I were probably more delighted by the toys Dad would sometimes bring home from his trips, such as a radio-controlled Star Wars R2D2 and some ‘Walkie-Talkies’.
In 1978 Dad was appointed to a Fellowship at St. Cross College, where he found the outward-looking atmosphere a refreshing experience. Later, as his Department was subsumed into the much larger Physics Department, there followed a period of rapid expansion and Dad took on more and more administrative responsibilities.
Since his schooldays, Dad had been keenly interested in cricket.. The Physics Department had a cricket team which played friendlies against local villages. He became a stalwart of this side, playing regularly until he was almost 50 years old. In his later years, he was happy to support the Appleton Cricket Club and served 4 years as Club President, where his valued contribution to the club included scoring at home games, and organising the annual President’s Match which was enjoyed by many.
Dad retired from his Lecturership in 2001 but was able to continue with his Magdalen teaching for a further 10 years until forced to give up by increasing ill health. He gave good value in his teaching and was popular with his students. His willingness to help others was much appreciated. On his retirement many warm tributes were received, and we’ve been touched by the thoughtful words of a number of people here today who have shared with us what Dad’s work has meant for them personally.
Dad kept up a steady output of research, which resulted in over 50 papers published in front-line academic journals. His work was a great satisfaction to him. It meant something to Dad to be able to help others along their way. Perhaps this was because he recognised that he had, in his own words, “come a long way from being a farmer’s son in Staffordshire.” He would have been deeply appreciative of the offer to host this service which we received from Magdalen College, and of the many tributes which have arrived at our home this week from Oxford, and from friends and colleagues both here and overseas.
But it is here that we end, in the village which he and my Mum made their home for 35 years: where he made us laugh at the dinner table by calling our pudding ‘Stink Puff’, grew broad beans each year in the garden, and watched to see which birds visited our bird table, where he found the cheerful presence of neighbours sustaining, and where I suspect some aspects of village life recalled to him things he had grown to value as a child. This is a place where there is still enough darkness for some stargazing on clear nights, and where he found peace counting the geese by the river and watching the sun set over the fields. Dad hoped to be remembered by the people he had come into contact with during his life. After this past week I can affirm without a doubt that this will indeed be the case, and, although he cannot be here to see it, we are all grateful.