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Her sight gone, Sarah Smith, 71, embraced a richer, fuller world

Sarah Smith, with her seeing-eye dog.  

Library Tag 12202001 LIFE AT HOME
Sarah Smith, with her seeing-eye dog. Library Tag 12202001 LIFE AT HOMEKnott, Janet Globe Staff/file/2001

After losing her sight at 30, Sarah Smith often seemed to inhabit the world more fully than those with working eyes.

She played musical instruments and sang, called contra dances, and taught people to twirl across the floor. She walked from Boston to New York City with her guide dog to raise awareness about visual disabilities. She shingled a house with a pneumatic nail gun and gave tours at the Museum of Fine Arts, where visitors experienced paintings more thoroughly through questions she posed.

A teacher and social worker whose eyesight failed due to diabetes, Ms. Smith died Feb. 3 after suffering a massive seizure. She was 71, lived in Belfast, Maine, and formerly had resided in Salem for more than three decades.

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Standing in front of a painting at the MFA, “Sarah would ask, ‘How big is it? I don’t want to just know the name of the painter. What is the first thing you see when you look at it? How does it make you feel? What is it about it that makes you feel like that?’ ” recalled Eleanor Rubin, former coordinator of access for people with disabilities at the MFA.

“She could enter into the painting or the discussion in any number of ways,” said Rubin, who remains part of the MFA’s access advisory board she created. “If somebody said a painting was a warm red, she would associate it with music that had the same feeling.”

Music — part of Ms. Smith’s life since childhood — became a portal into a new, larger life when her sight slipped away and she at first found herself floundering in a world where others could see.

“Everything in my life was crazy. I was becoming dependent, I lost my job, I couldn’t drive,” she told the Globe in 1982, four years after going blind. “But music was an incredible constant. I went right on rehearsing, performing, and calling dances. By this time I had become an ear musician, so my vision didn’t really matter. Being a musician was something I could depend on. Even when I couldn’t slice a piece of watermelon, I could still sing a great song.”

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She soon resumed teaching music and dance, and she found a new calling. Graduating with a master’s in social work from what was then Salem State College, she went to work at agencies in Lynn, Salem, and Beverly.

Ms. Smith finished at the head of her class, said her husband, Bill, and delivered from memory a graduation speech that included C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” and its lines:

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time

“My perception of the world is very, very vivid,” she told the Globe in 2001, while still a graduate student, “except it doesn’t include vision.”

Born in 1948, Sarah Gregory grew up in Wayland, the fourth of six siblings whose father, John Gregory, was a chemist, inventor, and consultant, and whose mother, Barbara Hulst, was an artist who had studied at the Museum School and taught painting, including at the family’s home.

At age 5, Ms. Smith was diagnosed with diabetes. “There are many, many terrible things that happen to people, and your life isn’t over,” she said in 2001. Back then, hers was just getting started.

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She joined her parents canoeing in Maine, hiking New Hampshire’s mountains, and gardening at home. She also became a classical musician — playing clarinet in the Boston Youth Symphony, attending Kinhaven Music School in Vermont — and she was the valedictorian of her Wayland High School class.

“She was a force,” said her brother Nicholas of Philadelphia, with whom she played recorder duets, including in Wayland’s Unitarian Universalist church.

He added that his sister “was really smart and made everybody smile. She was totally selfless, which dovetailed very well into her becoming a social worker later in life.”

First, Ms. Smith studied biology at Swarthmore College and aspired to medical school. Turning to teaching, she added a master’s in education from Lesley College to her bachelor’s from Swarthmore.

In the years after college, she played clarinet and then stand-up bass in a traditional New England folk music group Roaring Jelly.

“Around this time,” she recalled in 1982, “this very charming hammered dulcimer player came to Roaring Jelly — Bill Smith.”

He was a teacher, a woodworker, and a multi-instrumentalist. They married the day before the Blizzard of 1978, which extended their New Hampshire honeymoon when they were snowed in, and they went on to play at dances with another group, Common Ground.

Ms. Smith’s singing was everywhere. Callers to the couple’s Maine number are greeted with an answering message that opens with her singing the beginning of “Morning Has Broken.” When they no longer performed for audiences, they still bonded through music, recording CDs together.

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“It’s almost intoxicating, the two of us sharing the music,” she said.

Her presence was exhilarating for everyone she met. Visitors might end up reading crossword puzzle clues aloud to Ms. Smith, who tossed off answers while carrying on conversations.

“It was daunting to me, that focus,” her husband said. “Her brain was so sharp.”

Indeed, when they performed for contra dances, “she, by default, was the caller,” he added, “because she had the ability to remember things and visualize dances.”

In addition to her husband and brother, Ms. Smith leaves another brother, Brooke of La Serena, Chile, and a sister, Hannah Pemberton of Acton.

A celebration of Ms. Smith’s life will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 22 in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast, Maine. A subsequent gathering in Greater Boston will be announced.

In 2001, Glenna Lang published the children’s book “Looking Out for Sarah,” featuring Ms. Smith and her then-guide dog Perry, with whom she walked from Boston to New York in 1994, a 30-day outing.

“She is quite an inspiration,” Lang told the Globe in 2001, adding: “I know she can’t read the book, but the amazing thing is I feel that she can.”

Friends could be forgiven for thinking Ms. Smith could do what seemingly couldn’t be done.

When she and her husband built a house over the course of a decade in Waldoboro, Maine, where they lived before moving to Belfast, she hammered nails for framing and attached shingles to the side of the house with a nail gun.

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The Smiths sailed, too, and she’d steer using an audio compass crafted by a blind sailor.

Heading home one August evening in 1987 past Boon Island, several miles off York, Maine, they struck an underwater ledge. Their 30-foot ketch named Sarah filled with water and sank around 9 p.m.

For hours they rowed toward shore in a 7-foot dinghy, and Ms. Smith “came up with the idea that we’d sing our way through the alphabet to pass the time,” her husband recalled.

Trading off picking song titles that began with each letter in order, they sang and rowed until eight hours later “we got to the song, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ”

“Instead of singing it softly, we started it louder and louder until we were both singing at the top of our lungs,” he recalled. A passing boat rescued them about an hour later.

Ms. Smith always knew music was sustaining.

“I’m at my full power, emotionally and intellectually, when I sing,” she once said.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.