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Harding Eugene Smith, Jr. (1947–2007)

Published onJan 01, 2009
Harding Eugene Smith, Jr. (1947–2007)

Harding Eugene Smith Junior, or Gene, as he was known to family, friends, and colleagues, passed away after an automobile accident in Encinitas, California, on 16 August 2007. He was 60 years old. Gene had recently retired from UCSD after thirty years of service. A memorial service was held at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, California, on 23 August 2007. A web page is dedicated to his memory at, where contributions of memories are invited.

Gene was born in San Jose, California in 1947, to Harding Eugene Smith Senior, and Bernice Smith (nee Smith). Harding Smith Senior was an air-force navigator; therefore Gene spent his childhood moving from one air-force base to another. Although an only child, Gene was very close to his cousin Meg, whom he lived nearby to in Gilroy for a time, and the two were like brother and sister. The elder Harding Smith was lost in action over Cambodia in the mid-sixties.

Gene was a dedicated student, a boy scout, and a Presidential Scholar. He majored in Physics at Caltech, where he also took a lively interest in the football team and the Glee Club, and was elected a House Officer. To his close friends, he was known at Caltech as Smitty, and the closest of them was Rob Drew, who gave a glimpse into that period of Gene's life at the memorial: "Gene arrived early at campus his first year, in response to an invitation to join the football team. Gene's size and features reminded the head coach of a long-forgotten player named 'Johnson.' After a few days of confusion, Gene simply replaced the name on his helmet. 'Johnson!' coach would yell, 'get in there!' If Johnson was going to get to play, Gene was going to be the best Johnson available!"

Gene spent the summer of 1966 working at Kitt Peak, where his lifetime love of observing with ground-based telescopes began, though he learned some things the hard way, such as the fact that trying to squeeze 40,000 numbers onto a computer that stored only 32,000 resulted in blown fuses. In a final letter of that summer back to Drew he wrote: "My summer is now complete. I have achieved the highest pinnacle in my quest for fulfillment. Striking a blow for humanity I just blew the whole Kitt Peak CDC3200 computer system. Those fuses were nothing compared to this!"

Gene's graduate work, on the metal abundances in HII regions of nearby galaxies, was done at Berkeley, where Hyron Spinrad was his thesis advisor. He loved observing and spent numerous fun nights at Lick, Kitt Peak, Cerro Tololo, Keck, and many other observatories. He joined Margaret Burbidge at UCSD for a postdoctoral fellowship, and joined the teaching faculty there in 1978.

Gene spent his entire professional career at UCSD. His research ranged from the study of quasar absorptions lines to the astrophysics of Ultra-luminous Infrared Galaxies. He was a key participant in UC-wide astronomy support, including being the chair of the science-advisory committee for the Ten Meter Telescope project, which later "morphed" into the Keck Observatory. His contributions to enabling that project were both essential and unheralded.

Gene was a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher. One of his favorite undergraduate classes gave him the opportunity to dress up in Renaissance garb and pretend to be Galileo, while the experiment most loved by his students was when they got to attempt to drop an egg on his head from several stories high. Gene was also an outstanding advisor and mentor, and both his first post-doc, Rick Puetter, and his last graduate student, Brian Siana, were able to attend his memorial service and provide some special memories of their experiences with him.

Rick recalled a memorable trip to Cerro Tololo when they packed up two infrared spectrometers for the trip, and everything conceivable went wrong, from inspections at the airport to spectrometer parts broken on the plane and instrument failures at the observatory, to finally being completely clouded out. Brian recounted: "I spent countless cloudy nights listening to Gene's stories that began with "When men were men and giants roamed the Earth . . . ". I still don't know what that means, but it always preceded some sage advice."

Besides astrophysics, Gene's passions included horse riding (the faster the better), sailing, hiking, the northern California coast and mountains, black-and-white photography, extremely strong coffee, travel (especially European castles and cathedrals, and any road-less-traveled that he came across), cooking and fine restaurants, Native American pottery, basketware and kachinas, and classical music. He also loved to sing, and friends would say he had a song for every occasion. He was a dedicated and enthusiastic supporter of all causes environmental and conservationist, and among figures he greatly admired were John Muir and Ansel Adams.

Gene is survived by his wife of eighteen years, Dr. Carol Jean Lonsdale; step-daughter Kimberley; daughter Tamsyn; cousins Meg and Chris Bailey; in-laws Colin and Marilou Lonsdale, and Graham Lonsdale; niece Joanna; and two nephews Greg and Wes. He is also greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues, his golden retriever, Jasper, and his palomino horse, Sundance.

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