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Eric P. Smith, authority on the history of Concord; at 97

More than simply living in Concord, Eric Parkman Smith was a direct link to the history of a town that was home to the Alcotts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa May Alcott even used some of his ancestors and their friends as models for characters in one of her books.

"He was a 10th-generation Concordian," said Sally Sanford, who is married to one of Mr. Smith's cousins. "That was something Eric took great pride in and really valued. His mother knew Louisa May Alcott, so he was personally connected to a lot of Concord's history. And he was a fountain of knowledge of Concord history and an avid collector of Concordiana."

He also could be a stickler for details, promoting an authentic pronunciation of Alcott (ALL-cut, he would say) and Thoreau, which he pronounced "thorough" -- accenting the first syllable.

Mr. Smith, a former railroad executive who spent most of his life in the Concord house where he had lived since he was 6 weeks old, died June 15 in the Concord home of Sandy Smith, his first cousin once removed. He was 97, and his health had slowly failed in recent years.

A descendent of George Wheeler, Mr. Smith traced his Concord lineage to about 1630. He wrote a history of First Parish Church and its ministers and served as a trustee for 36 years, surpassing by three months his uncle's record for longest tenure. As an infant, he sat on his mother's lap during meetings to form the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association in 1911. Decades later, he was a trustee and treasurer for the organization.

"One of the things that he loved to do was to portray Bronson Alcott; that was a joy for Eric," said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. For living history exhibits, she portrayed Louisa while he took the role of Louisa's father.

"He sounded like Bronson, at least how I imagine Bronson to have sounded," she said. "I think, beyond that, Eric was really playing himself, but it worked well. He was very mild-mannered, and I think that was a characteristic of Bronson Alcott. He loved meeting people, and that was a characteristic of Bronson Alcott, as well."

Mr. Smith's mother was one of three Blanchard sisters in Concord who married three Smith brothers. She was a young girl near the end of Louisa Alcott's life, before the author of "Little Women" died at 55.

"Louisa inscribed a copy of 'Little Women' to the little women of Blanchard house," Turnquist said.

He once wrote, "This book, now ragged and tattered from hundreds of readings by 'the little women,' their children, and grandchildren, became the prized possession of our family."

Mr. Smith graduated from Concord High School in 1927 and spent a finishing year at Phillips Academy in Andover, where President Calvin Coolidge was the school's commencement speaker in 1928. He graduated from Harvard, majoring in geology, then received a master's in business administration from Harvard Business School.

For nearly 20 years he worked in Boston and New Haven as an executive for the New Haven Railroad, then was director of cost research for the Maine Central Railroad in Portland. He retired in 1982 after several years on the board of directors. Eschewing conventional athletics, he liked to hike, camp, and canoe in Maine's lakes and forests.

"He knew Thoreau's 'The Maine Woods' well," Sanford said.

While working in Maine, Mr. Smith remained very much a Concordian, commuting often between Portland and his family's house. His passed through the tollbooths in New Hampshire so frequently that the toll takers let him buy a Coke from their soda machine, a dose of caffeine to keep him awake on the road.

Mr. Smith disdained anything stronger than Coca-Cola.

"His mother had been very active in the temperance movement, and Eric never drank," said Sanford, who is married to Sandy Smith. "And he never put anything into a wine glass or anything that would give the appearance that he was drinking."

"At family Christmas parties, he always had cranberry juice, being festive because it was red," Sandy Smith said. "He didn't participate in the eggnog."

That is not to say that Mr. Smith was severe.

"You didn't go and just talk to Eric; you visited," Turnquist said. "He had a sense of time and courtesy. 'Proper' doesn't describe it, because it sounds stuffy, and he wasn't stuffy. He knew how to laugh and take delight in simple things and really appreciate things. He was an appreciative person."

"Eric had this very, very vigorous handshake," Sanford said. "When he shook hands with you, you really knew he was there, and that was true right up to the end."

In conversation with Mr. Smith, she said, "you felt like you were talking to someone who really had come from a time machine from the Victorian era. He had these wonderful Victorian turns of phrase, spoken with a real, old Concord accent. After Christmas dinner he would say things like, 'I'm bountifully nourished.' "

A bachelor, Mr. Smith had hired Lyyli Koskenhovi, who had been his governess when he was growing up, to be his housekeeper. For years she prepared his meals, and he took care of her until she died in 1991.

Part of Mr. Smith's Victorian view of life included a devotion to common decency, by mail or in person.

"He befriended anyone he encountered," Sanford said. "At all costs he was polite. If he didn't like something, he would say, 'Well, it was all right,' and you quickly realized that was as far as he would go to say something negative."

"He always wrote wonderful thank-you notes, whether he came to dinner or had received a gift at Christmas time or on his birthday," Sandy Smith said. "He was well-schooled in the social graces."

At Christmas parties, Mr. Smith would arrive with a small gift for everyone in attendance. Everyone who attends his funeral will receive a small gift from him, though he was not eager for that ceremony to arrive.

"Eric had this unbelievable life force and this enormous will to live," Sanford said. "He wanted to make every moment count, and he wanted every possible split-second moment of this life that he could have."

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. today in First Parish Church in Concord.

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