By Paul Mills
The entire state – and for that matter – much of the national legal community – lost one of its greatest all time trial attorneys a few days ago with the death of Portland’s Ralph “Ike” Lancaster at the age of 88. As federal Judge William Kayatta observed, “No Maine trial lawyer has ever risen to such heights.”
His prominence was so well recognized the US Supreme Court appointed Lancaster, one time President of the American Trial Lawyers Association, a record four times to help resolve complex interstate disputes.
The day of Lancaster’s death, Jan. 22, was also the same day as the death of another Maine notable, 84-year old Fred O. Smith, II.
If Lancaster was the Babe Ruth or Mark Trout of Maine’s civic affairs then Smith would be Cal Ripken. This one-time president of the New England Council of Young Republicans was just last year bestowed an award for having attended every biennial GOP convention for 70 years, a streak that began in 1948. (There was just one exception:- 1958 when his commanding naval officer declined to honor his application for leave.)
Perhaps a distinction even more remarkable was his weekly leadership in Rotary. His streak had hit 43 years and was president of the Farmington club at the time of his death last month. (This columnist was especially grateful to Fred for his script writing on one of Rotary’s signature annual fund raiser’s, the Price is Right, when this columnist was the event’s “Bob Barker,” a task not possible without Fred’s ghostwriting for the role.)
If you are reading this column you have no doubt already caught a glimpse of him somewhere, some place. He was one of the more ubiquitous, dashing here, there and everywhere personas in Maine.
He was certainly going as strong as ever at the time he collapsed from a stroke while on the job at his latest of many ventures, Old Ford Antiques in West Farmington. (He died three days later without regaining consciousness.)
His good natured and civilized temperament were seldom equaled and never surpassed.
His “never give up and keep on going” energizer bunny propulsion engine kept him on the job full tilt on a seven day week schedule that would bring a much younger person to his knees.
Into his 60’s, he was pursuing and obtaining a master’s degree in political science from the University of Vermont.
There were many illustrations of his conciliatory, bipartisan spirit. When applying for admission to the UVM graduate school, letters of recommendation came from the most prominent Democrat and most prominent Republican in Maine at the time, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Governor John McKernan.
He did not seem to want to miss out on anything that might be going at any time at any place. For over 50 years and well into his 70’s one could not witness a fire in New Vineyard, home of his family’s sawmill manufacturing facilities, without seeing Fred there as a front line member of the local fire department.
His paintings, woodcraft craftsmanship and even culinary arts were also part of the repertoire of his inexhaustible and varied interests.
Though almost unalterably loyal to the entire Republican ticket year after year he was as much loved by local Democrats as he was by Republicans. Conciliatory and compassionate to all, it was a testament to his wide range of acquaintances that there were probably as many Democrats (including the governor) as there were Republicans among the several hundred people at his funeral in Farmington’s Old South Church last week.
His unshakable optimism and faith in the Republican party was not without reason or inflexible. He actually supported a Democrat for District Attorney last year and was also proud of his grandfather’s service as a Democratic state senator at one time.
He rescued much of New Vineyard history from oblivion when on its bicentennial in 2002 he assembled many of the records that he had preserved and put out what amounted to the first town history in the municipality’s two centuries of existence.
Bowdoin College was also a passion, Fred being a 1956 classmate of longtime L.L. Bean CEO President Leon Gorman. His Bowdoin contemporary and fraternity brother, George Mitchell, was also a close acquaintance.
A Deacon of his church, a one-time member of the local school board and a long-time member of the budget and other municipal committees in both Farmington and New Vineyard were also positions that made claims on his time.
As much if not more than his tangible achievements the proudest and most significant entry on his curricula vitae was the pride which he took in his family, raising, with his wife Mabel, who died six years ago after a protracted ailment, three daughters, Sarah, Erika, and Jennifer and in addition bringing up several as his own grandchildren in recent years.
Their love and admiration for him would be his greatest epitaph.
Indeed, exhortations that Fred might have issued would no doubt have been similar to those by which Attorney Lancaster closed out his own obituary.
“Dance as if no one is looking.
“Sing as if no one is listening.
“Love as if we’ve never been hurt.”
Though the words are those of Lancaster few people have ever vividly illustrated them with as much uninhibited zeal as Fred O. Smith.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org