Obituary: Douglas Grahame Smyth / Executive known for his brilliance, amiability
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Grahame Smyth was brilliant -- a Harvard grad, a business executive who spent many years abroad, a talented pianist, dogged rower, voracious reader and engaging speaker. Perhaps most striking of all, he made everyone around him feel smart.
After being invited to join Pittsburgh Junta -- an intellectual society modeled on an organization founded by Benjamin Franklin in which members give presentations on a variety of subjects -- he played Bach inventions flawlessly and discussed them in detail, all without reference to music or notes, longtime friend and fellow Junta member Otto Chu recalled.
"He was tall, very dignified in his countenance," said Deane Root, University of Pittsburgh professor of music and director of the Center for American Music.
"He came into a room slowly. He didn't take over. I always had the impression that he surveyed the room when he entered, knew his surroundings well. He would engage you in conversation, find out a lot about you quickly, and had an ability to make friends quickly."
Andy Masich, CEO of the Heinz History Center, recalled Mr. Smyth's great memory and speaking skills. "But more than what he said was how he said it. He was so thoughtful and inclusive," said Mr. Masich. "And he always put you at ease when you were speaking" -- an experience that could be daunting at Junta meetings, where tuxedo-clad members discussed topics in depth.
Mr. Smyth, who spent most of his career at Gulf Oil Corp., died Thursday at home in Fox Chapel of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 89.
Douglas Grahame Smyth was born in Westfield, N.J., the son of a Wall Street businessman and an accomplished pianist.
He attended the Kent School, a Connecticut prep school, and was accepted to Harvard College and drafted at the same time.
He joined the Navy, said his wife, Louisa. Though he was class of 1945, the Navy arranged for him and others to push through college in three years, and he served in the Pacific theater during the last year of the war. He went on to earn a law degree (1949) and a master's in business (1951) from Harvard.
He began at Gulf Oil pumping gas in Harlem, his wife said, common practice at the time to show young business recruits the company from the bottom up.
During the post-war years, Louisa Smyth said, he worked in Europe and Asia helping Germany and Japan rebuild their tattered economies "while furthering Gulf Oil's interests, obviously."
He worked for Gulf Oil in New York and Pittsburgh from 1951 until 1955, when he left for stints at the Manufacturers Trust Co. and International Paper Co. in New York. In 1964, Gulf recruited him back and he worked in Pittsburgh, London and Tokyo, rising to become treasurer of Gulf Oil Asia.
He played piano throughout his life until Parkinson's stole the music from his fingers a few years ago, his wife said. He also continued rowing, his sport at Harvard, well into his 80s, eventually moving from the water to a machine in his home. He logged his miles on a land-bound trip around the world, reporting progress to his friends.
"He started in Pittsburgh and made it to the Seychelles," said his wife.
He and Louisa, who was originally from Lancaster, met in Pittsburgh through a mutual acquaintance at Gulf Oil.
"We didn't either one of us appreciate matchmakers, so we avoided meeting each other for months," said Mrs. Smyth. "But it worked well. We were both very astonished." They married in 1980.
She also had lived abroad, spending time in Geneva as a United Nations interpreter before returning to Pennsylvania. The two, who had been apartment dwellers all their lives and all over the world, lived for many years in Park Mansions apartments next to Schenley Park. They moved to the Trillium in Fox Chapel in 1999.
Mr. Smyth retired from Gulf Oil in 1982, wanting to spend time traveling and pursuing his many interests.
"Grahame was both the consummate corporate executive and a gentleman scholar," said architect David Vater, who traveled with the Smyths to visit the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and was delighted to find Mr. Smyth could knowledgeably discuss architectural styles. "When Grahame would speak to you he always spoke with insight and understanding."
Mr. Root recalled his engaging presentations at Junta meetings.
"I have a really loving impression of Grahame, standing with his hands on a table, kind of leaning forward, toward the group as he spoke -- and a half hour seemed to fly by in three or four minutes."
He loved to read, particularly history and literature, said his wife.
"He had shelves and shelves and shelves of books -- all annotated. You'd open a book and reams of paper would fall out. I don't know why the floors don't collapse."
The two went canoeing in New York, learned to sail in Maine, and were regulars at cultural events in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Smyth took on a second career taking his skills from the business world to local institutions. He was treasurer at Pressley Ridge School, where he worked until 1989, and he served as treasurer for several years at his church, Calvary Episcopal in Shadyside. "He was a very erudite person, but didn't wear his intelligence on his sleeve," said the Rev. Harold Lewis, rector at Calvary.
"He was fun to be with," said Mrs. Smyth, who said she would miss his whimsical sense of humor -- "the raised eyebrow, the wry comment."
Most of all, he attended to others, sharing rather than flaunting his intelligence.
"He made everyone feel wonderful about themselves without even trying," Louisa Smyth said. "He was a very kind person, extremely kind. He made you feel smart -- probably smarter than you were."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Smyth is survived by a daughter, Anne Smyth Renfrow of Aspinwall, and three grandchildren.
The family plans a memorial service, on or around his Oct. 22 birthday, at Calvary Church. There will be balloons, Mrs. Smyth promised.
At a later date, Mr. Smyth will be interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, a historic landmark that he visited and fixed on as the place he wanted to be buried.
John A. Freyvogel Sons funeral home is handling arrangements.
First Published August 25, 2012 12:00 am