Smiths to be honored for their shoreline work

Bob and Rachel Smith felt most at home at the shoreline. The Smiths will be honored at the Bainbridge Island Environmental Conference this weekend at IslandWood. The theme for the 10th annual conference is “Protecting the Island’s Shoreline Environment.”  - Photo courtesy of Nathan Smith
Bob and Rachel Smith felt most at home at the shoreline. The Smiths will be honored at the Bainbridge Island Environmental Conference this weekend at IslandWood. The theme for the 10th annual conference is “Protecting the Island’s Shoreline Environment.”
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Nathan Smith

Bainbridge Island is full of people who love its shoreline for a variety of reasons.

But few have embraced the simple life and actively fought for the public’s waterfront access more than Rachel and Bob Smith, two longtime residents who will be honored posthumously this weekend during the annual Environmental Conference this weekend at IslandWood.

For Rachel, an English teacher, and Bob, an aeronautical engineer for Boeing, much of their adult lives were spent enjoying the island life. It began on Shaw Island, where as a young couple they bought waterfront land they lived on but never developed. They moved to Bainbridge in 1969 and built – piece by piece – a home on the north side of Blakely Harbor.

Both grew to love the island in their own way, friends and family say, Rachel more actively perhaps than Bob, who had a great love for the island’s history. He had a large collection of Hall Brothers photographs of Blakely Harbor when it was dominated by the mill located there.

They owned a variety of boats, including a sailboat that Bob often said, according to their friend Elise Wright, “‘that Rachel loves it more than me.’”

Rachel was raised east of the Cascades in Sunnyside, “but she took to the water like she was born on it,” Wright said. “It was a big part of her personality in a way. She liked frugality, simplicity, public service, and being useful.”

She became active in island causes and eventually found one she could dig into – a proposal for a four-building condominium development located just south of the Washington State Ferry Terminal. She and friend Jessie Hey formed an organization called Bainbridge Island Concerned Citizens and eventually got the development halved in size and challenged the city’s spot zoning all the way to the State Shoreline Hearings Board, which eventually agreed to set aside two-and-a-half acres for a public boatyard.

The 1974 decision and WSF’s challenge is still barely alive these days, but it was a monumental undertaking at the time.

“We just wanted to keep the waterfront available for the public,” Hey said. “She was full of energy. I really admired her. We were little old ladies in tennis shoes and it was thrilling when we took them on.”

A Seattle attorney represented the organization for a minimal cost, said Hey, “but it was still pretty expensive. So we started collecting a lot of old furniture at rummage and garage sales. Rachel restored it and we sold it to pay our legal costs. She loved working with wood, just working like a crazy person and turning out this great stuff. People loved it.”

Jerry Elfendahl, who has championed a few causes in his own way, said Rachel could be a dynamo.

“She was amazing when she got started on something,” he said. “She came within one vote of getting a state park at Blakely Harbor. She was also an absolute sweetheart.”

Wright said her old friend was known for her gentle wit and humor, but she could be tough when she saw something worth fighting for.

“She was the first woman I knew who put community activism and following your passion above housework,” Wright said. “She inspired an entire generation of young women to become strong advocates for the environment. Her legacy was pretty extensive.”

Their oldest son, Nathan, who now lives in his parents’ home on Blakely Harbor with his wife, Pattie Borman, didn’t always agree “with their causes and politicking, but that’s the way they were. They were always idealistic. I’m a little more cynical, but my hat’s off to them. They did a lot of good for this island.”

When Bob Smith died in 2008, Nathan and Pattie moved into the home to keep Rachel company. She had heart problems but was still very active, so they took her along with them last March on a trip to the British Virgin Islands.

“She loved to travel and she was really up for it,” Nathan said. “On the second day she was snorkeling and she had a heart attack and died. She didn’t drown. Everybody said, ‘Oh, wow, she couldn’t have figured out a better way to die.’”

She was 84.

“We had a service for her at Fay Bainbridge (State Park),” Wright said. “It was a perfect picnic potluck, just the kind she liked.”

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