Bill Smith of Edgartown, 72, one of the Island's true originals, died in his sleep at his South Summer street home on Dec. 19.
When it came to clambakes, quahaug chowder and shoreside gatherings, Mr. Smith was an Island icon. He founded Bill Smith's Martha's Vineyard Clambake & Catering Company and ladled chowder at parties all along the Eastern seaboard.
William S. Smith was born on Feb. 6, 1930, to the late Stanley M. and Marguerite G. (Simpson) Smith. He was the third in a family of nine children.
Mr. Smith's father was an Edgartown police chief, a painter, a fish warden and a landscaper. Bill said he learned much about his craft from his father, who had earned a reputation for knowing how to make a traditional clambake and cook up quahaug chowder.
Stanley Smith died in 1962, and Marguerite Smith in 1998.
Raising a large family on the Vineyard was difficult in the 1920s and 1930s. While Bill grew up mostly in Edgartown, the family moved around quite a bit in his childhood; he and his siblings recall spending different seasons in different parts of town. For a time the family spent summers in a family house near the Edgartown Yacht Club tennis courts and winters in the Ferber House, which today is the Point Way Inn. The Smiths settled in the family homestead on South Summer and High streets in 1935.
Before graduating from Edgartown High School, Bill worked at the Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Dairy, near the Bend in the Road. After high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean conflict, and following his military service attended Syracuse (N.Y.) University College of Law for two years.
He worked as an accountant in Syracuse for 11 years, but eventually tired of the work. Concerned about the well-being of his mother, Bill returned to the Vineyard.
In the spring of 1968, he ran the restaurant at the Martha's Vineyard Airport, but due to unfortunate circumstances the business failed. It was while managing a concession stand at the Chappaquiddick Beach Club that he felt the lure of seafood and decided to start a clambake business.
"One day somebody approached me at the club and asked me to do a [clam] bake for him, because he heard that I knew how," Mr. Smith told the Gazette in a 1977interview. "I refused - I just didn't want to be bothered with the whole mess.
"A while later, someone else asked me to do a bake, so I gave in and said I'd do it. I had fun despite myself. That year I did a dozen or so bakes, and the next year I did a few more, and so on. Now, it's practically all I do."
Nelson C. Smith of Edgartown, 77, is Bill's eldest brother and a retired commercial fisherman. He recalled going fishing with his brother years ago: "He wasn't that much on the water when he got out of the Air Force. I was doing bay scalloping that winter in a Crosby cat. My brother wanted to go scalloping with me. He lasted four days. He did like to go fishing when I was in the charter business," Nelson said.
In the 1960s, Nelson Smith said, his brother liked to go out on the water when the weather was warm. "He liked to go pleasure fishing in my boat Loyal, a 29-foot Jersey skiff. He liked to fish for bluefish and stripers."
Nelson Smith said his brother was knowledgeable about cooking chowders. While the Smiths' father would cook up a quahaug chowder one way, with salt pork, Bill used several recipes.
"Bill made all kinds," Nelson Smith said. "He made different quahaug and fish chowders and oyster stews. Billy could make it all."
He could also cook up a traditional pit-style clambake, which calls for hours of preparation and plenty of supplies, including rocks, wood and seaweed, to say nothing of lobsters, clams, corn, linguica and potato. In more recent years, because of state and local fire codes prohibiting fires on open beaches, Mr. Smith prepared his clambakes using large custom steamers fired by propane gas.
Carole Larsen, his sister, said of her older brother: "He had a good sense of humor. In the last couple of days, I have had so many people say what a nice guy he was."
Bill Smith attended a lot of parties. His cooking skill, his wares and especially his ability to entertain were a centerpiece of many family reunions around the Island. He cooked for weddings, for private parties and public functions. Many times he served at nonprofit fundraisers.
In winters he took his operation to Jensen Beach, Fla., where he had a cottage. In the days before his death, Bill was preparing to make his annual trip south.
While there may not be full agreement on how to make a good cup of New England clam chowder, all can agree Mr. Smith had his loyal followers. He was often seen driving about the Island delivering a pot to someone's family gathering, making deliveries in all kinds of weather.
"My customers know that I want the best for them, and not what is easiest for me," Mr. Smith told the Gazette in 1977. "I want them to have a successful party. I do my job and I think I do a damn good one."
"I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone," said Dan Larsen of Edgartown, one of Bill's many nephews. "He was a nice guy."
Nelson Smith said of his brother: "Deep down, Bill was a religious person, moreso than most people today. He always felt there was someone up there looking after him. My father was like that."
Bill Smith was a member of the Federated Church in Edgartown; of American Legion Post 186, Edgartown; of Martha's Vineyard Veteran's of Foreign Wars Post 9261; of the Rotary Club of Martha's Vineyard, and of Martha's Vineyard Oriental Lodge A.F. & A.M.
He is survived by his siblings, Nelson C. Smith of Edgartown, Mary S. Larsen of Chilmark, Carole E. Larsen of Menemsha, Mark M. Smith and Michael K. Smith, both of Edgartown, and his longtime friend and partner, Malcolm (Mac) Cook of Chilmark. Also surviving are many nieces, nephews and cousins. He was predeceased by three siblings, Katherine S. Davoll, Dianne D. Osbaldeston and George H. Smith.
Visiting hours will be held today from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Chapman, Cole & Gleason Funeral Home in Oak Bluffs. A funeral service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Federated Church in Edgartown, with military honors offered by the veterans of Martha's Vineyard.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Federated Church, South Summer street, Edgartown, MA 02539; the American Diabetes Association, P.O. Box 2680, North Canton, OH 44720, or the Island charity of one's choice.