‘When Hank took on a project, he saw it through’

  • Hank Smith of the Woodstock Musketeers, right, goes over the top to reject Lisa Stebbins of the V.A. Squad in the Fountain of Youth Three-On-Three Summer League in White River Junction, Vt., on July 7, 1997. Smith helped to form an over-40 basketball league in Woodstock. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Hank Smith, right, with his younger brother Phil. Smith was an dedicated baseball fan and grew up in Queens playing pickleball. (Family photograph)

  • Hank Smith at his farm Westwinds in Bridgewater, Vt., in a circa-2010s photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Hank Smith with his friend, Dick Caplan of Tafstville, Vt., on Caplan's two horses at the annual Woodstock Wassail Parade in the mid-1980s. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2020 9:00:07 PM
Modified: 11/29/2020 9:00:04 PM

BRIDGEWATER — Every morning, Hank Smith would drive one of his 14 antique cars from the 1950s to the Mountain Creamery or Mon Vert Cafe on Central Street in Woodstock to read the newspaper and grab a cup of coffee. Sometimes he was rolling in a Corvette, other times a Thunderbird or a Chevy.

Smith was a lover of baseball, family and his farm, and his neighbors in Bridgewater and Woodstock could depend on him cruising through town in one of his classic cars on a daily basis. His wife, Kathy, said he always wanted to buy an Edsel, a car that became well known for how ugly it was and its commercial failure.

And while Smith may have never realized it, just motoring those cars around town brought some joy to his neighbors’ daily lives.

“We lived on the same road,” said Woodstock High field hockey coach Wendy Wannop. “He would drive by every morning in an antique car; I loved antique cars. It was always fun to see him driving by. He maintained them so well. When Hank took on a project, he saw it through. And that speaks volumes about him.”

Smith, who died of heart failure on July 14, 2020, at 76, didn’t come to the Upper Valley until the second half of his life, after he spent the 1960s and most of the 1970s working at Intel where he served as a marketing manager and helped the company sell its trailblazing microprocessor. He also traveled to all seven continents.

But in the span of the roughly 40 years he spent here, he made a sizable impact. Smith and his family in 1979 moved from New York City to Westwinds Farm on Cox District Road, near the Bridgewater/Woodstock town line, and he became an early remote worker. Between work trips as a venture capitalist for Venrock, which was an early investor in Apple, and working on his home, he started to raise cows, eventually turning the farm into a place for horse training and boarding which Kathy oversaw.

As he spent more time in the area, he began to make his impact. He and Kathy had four kids together — Tam, Beka, Dan and Callie. One of Smith’s first decisions was to make sure Dan had a place to play baseball as a kid, founding the Bridgewater Beestompers Little League baseball team.

In the team’s first year it played behind the town’s Congregational Church. But Smith grew up in Queens playing baseball, was later invited to try out for what was then known as the Milwaukee Braves baseball franchise and played college baseball at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — and he knew what a real baseball field looked like. A simple grassy field wasn’t it.

So he then took the program a step further, raising money to build a baseball diamond, tennis court and playground for the town. The area is now called Bridgewater Park and is an essential piece of the town’s recreation system.

“Bridgewater, which boasts the unique name of the Beestompers for its children’s team, gave momentum and credibility to its evolving town recreational program last summer when it finished the first phase of a four-acre park,” Vermont Life magazine reported in the summer of 1984. “One of its features is a ballfield measuring a full 270 feet down each foul line to the fence.”

Smith tapped into some federal dollars and then funded a lot of ongoing support on his own, with the help of Bruce Seely and Tommy Zuba.

As Smith’s kids grew up, he and Kathy realized that the greater Woodstock area didn’t have a child care center that he could’ve sent his kids to if he had moved to the Upper Valley earlier in life.

With their friends Meg and Bruce Seely, the four opened up The Mt. Tom School in 1988. At its peak, it served 88 kids and was the second-largest child care center in the state of Vermont.

Smith was “always looking for ways to give back,” Meg and Bruce Seely said in a written statement.

“He gave help where help was needed, but he did so quietly, leaving those he touched better off,” the Seelys said. “Losing Hank is a huge loss for us personally. But the town of Bridgewater has lost our patriarch.”

Although the child care center eventually closed, he kept giving back to the community. He served on the Woodstock Union High School Board for 13 years and founded the school’s endowment fund, which helped support athletics, facilities and students’ enrichment.

He also held a voted position as the trustee of public funds in Bridgewater for over 20 years, making the numbers match and sharing his advice and experience from years working as a venture capitalist.

“I miss him. He was a very important part of the municipal government,” said Lynne Bertram, the Selectboard chairwoman in Bridgewater and a real estate agent. “He guided the town in their finances. He was an amazing man and had a great sense of humor, at least one that I appreciated.”

Smith also took on helping to save the Bridgewater Village School. In 2018, the Selectboard started to debate if the white clapboard schoolhouse, which was built in 1914 but no longer was being used as a school, was worth preserving.

Speaking in late August 2018 on behalf of the Save the School Building Committee, a grassroots campaign to save the schoolhouse, Smith sad, “It’s a valuable building that would be impossible to replace. The building is a prime example of Vermont craftsmanship.”

His drive to see the committee’s goal came to life in 2019 when the town and the newly formed Bridgewater Area Community Foundation executed a lease agreement to utilize the building for a community center and child care center.

“Hank said we need to build back Vermont communities because he believed in small communities,” said Charlie Shackleton, who sat on the BACF board with Smith. “He came from all over the country, but he set his heart in Bridgewater. He taught me to not give up and to have confidence.

“He was one of our great community leaders, and he did it sort of leading from behind and giving people strength.”

Smith remained a devoted baseball fan after his days forming the Bridgewater Beestompers. He was a founding owner of the Norwich (Conn.) Navigators, the AA minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees.

And on his farm, Smith helped his first-born grandchild, Jordy Allard, develop his baseball skills. He taught Allard how to throw a baseball and built him a batting cage to throw batting practice in the back of the farm house. When Allard started to throw the baseball, Smith switched to a new role of coaching from a distance.

He would attend all of his grandson’s games, always sitting directly behind home plate and doing research to help better Allard’s game. The work paid off as Allard, a Hartford High graduate, is now a senior pitcher on the Babson College baseball team; he pitched in the 2019 Division III College World Series for the Beavers and has also played for the Upper Valley Nighthawks.

“When I was younger, I didn’t think I was good at baseball,” Allard said. “He kind of knew I had more in me, and he always found a way to get it out. It wasn’t necessarily an angry ‘you’re better than this,’ it was a nurturing reassurance.”

Over the years, Westwinds Farm became more than just a place where Smith’s family lived. It is a horse farm, a car repair shop, an antique car museum, a wedding site, a cross country running and baseball retreat and a wiffle ball tournament location. It also features a bunk house, a barn, arena, repair shop, fields and a pond.

Kathy Smith said the move to Vermont was good for their family, and especially for her husband.

“It just was the right time in his life,” she said. “By the time we came to Vermont, we had three kids and then had a fourth three years later. We got involved in the school system, we got involved in the activities. The kids were at an age where they were doing sports and all that. That’s how it evolved.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.

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