From a childhood in New Mexico’s small towns, where he was the son of a piano teacher and a railroad stationmaster, Donald Smith headed north to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study electrical engineering and solid state physics, and help found a business.
“Out of this little nothing town in New Mexico, here he comes to MIT,” said Ken Harte of Carlisle, who worked with Dr. Smith throughout his career and helped him launch Micro-Bit Corp., which worked in the area of electron beam memory technology.
Harte called Dr. Smith, who was about 10 years older, a mentor who “would teach me how to make things happen, and I would help him understand the mathematics and the theory; I thought he was really amazing.”
Dr. Smith, whose interests ranged from playing violin to studying iconography depicting the Annunciation, died in his Lexington home June 8 of complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 87.
‘Our team, led by Don, earned a worldwide reputation in the field of magnetic thin films.’
Dr. Smith spent 13 years working for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as a research scientist and a group leader, publishing many papers about magnetic materials and applications related to computer memory, said his wife, Lari.
“Our team, led by Don, earned a worldwide reputation in the field of magnetic thin films,” said Harte, who added that the researchers traveled to countries around the world to attend seminars, and that Dr. Smith organized an international conference in Boston on the topic.
At the end of the 1960s, Dr. Smith and Harte joined other colleagues to start Micro-Bit, where Dr. Smith was president. Micro-Bit was acquired as discoveries moved the field forward, Harte said, and the researchers worked for the new owner, adapting their technology to make computer chips.
Harte said they left the business in the late 1980s, and in 1989 Dr. Smith became a consultant to Photoelectron Corp., where he helped develop cancer-treatment methods using an X-ray. The work involved several clinical trials, Harte said.
About a decade ago, Dr. Smith became ill, preventing him from continuing to work.
Donald Oscar Smith was born in Santa Fe and grew up in small towns, hiking in mountains and playing sonatas for piano and violin with his mother.
Though his parents had not attended college and did not expect their son to do so, Dr. Smith was the top student in his class of 12 in Hurley, N.M., his wife said. He first attended the University of New Mexico and then transferred to MIT to study electrical engineering.
“He applied to MIT without telling them,” his wife said. His parents, she said, “were in a little awe as he went higher and higher and higher.”
After graduating from MIT with a bachelor’s degree, Dr. Smith joined the US Navy and served on a destroyer, she said.
“He carried a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and by the time he came home, he had memorized many of them,” she said.
An avid reader, Dr. Smith loved the classics, especially Shakespeare. His wife said they built a small barn to hold all his books.
Returning to MIT after serving in the Navy, Dr. Smith graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering.
In 1950, he met Claire Wilson, who was a medical technician and known as Lari. While he spent the summer in Europe, they kept in contact by writing letters.
“He came back in the fall, and we were engaged in three months,” she said. They married in 1951.
Dr. Smith got a job at Bell Labs as an engineer, but “hated it,” his wife said, and he decided to return to MIT for a doctorate in solid state physics, which he pursued as a career.
“He thought it was a beautiful thing,” she said. “Not just interesting, but beautiful.”
Later in his life, he began studying and collecting depictions of the Annunciation when, according to the Gospels, an angel tells Mary she will give birth to the son of God.
“It was typical of him, becoming seriously interested in something, rather than just looking at it,” she said.
The couple also traveled, visiting countries such as China, France, Italy, and Spain. They often spent days at a single cathedral or a museum.
“He liked doing things in depth,” she said. “He really wanted to look at things thoroughly and carefully.”
Dr. Smith focused similar attention on music and “practiced violin every day” since he was about 6, his wife said. He performed in several concerts and frequently invited friends over to play.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Smith leaves two sons, Wendell of Bedford and Evan of Lexington; a daughter, Rebecca Chambers of Lexington; and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 1 in First Parish in Bedford.
Dr. Smith also built wooden tables, chairs, and other furniture and spent a few years in the late 1960s constructing an elaborate deck and porch at the family’s home. He built it so it was level with the living room and did not obstruct the view of the town forest that stretched beyond their backyard, his wife said.
Mary Jane Rupert, a family friend who plays harp, had trouble getting the 80-pound instrument into her home. Dr. Smith devised a system to use an electric winch to lift the harp and bring it into the house. “We call it the harp hoist,” Rupert said.
“He took great delight in doing things well,” she added. “When something like that worked, he would get this big smile on his face.”