February 25, 1929 – May 11, 2021
Chalmers Smith passed away peacefully, holding his daughters' hands, at Channing House in Palo Alto on May 11, 2021. He was 92.
Walter Chalmers Smith was born on February 25, 1929 in Whiting, Indiana. His parents were Walter Henry Smith, a local attorney, and Jessie Curtis Smith, a pianist and church organist. He had one sibling, Curtis Smith, who was eight years older. His grandfathers were instrumental in the founding of Whiting; one created the plans for the Standard Oil refinery there, and the other served as Mayor. His father had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and his mother set high standards for manners. Chalmers absorbed both of these traits.
Chalmers enjoyed an idyllic childhood, surrounded by music. He attended George Rogers Clark School from kindergarten through 12th grade, where he was both student body president and concertmaster of the orchestra. He had a close group of friends who called themselves the Wespark Gang, named after the street Chalmers lived on. Chalmers said the worst thing they ever did was use his mother's ball gown as a rope ladder. These boys all grew up to become accomplished professionals and remained lifelong friends.
Chalmers started piano lessons at age 5, switched to violin at age 7, and dutifully practiced every day. Curtis, a cellist, completed a family trio. His father, a tenor, once sang in a chorus on stage with Enrico Caruso. Later, Chalmers performed as a supernumerary in a Chicago Lyric Opera production of Aida. Because he was tall, he played a spear-carrying soldier in the Egyptian army. He remembered standing sentry on stage and looking down in horror to see he'd forgotten to remove his wristwatch.
Chalmers had many illnesses growing up, including empyema, which landed him in a Chicago hospital for five months. When a clever nurse found a leftover dose of precious penicillin – reserved for WWII soldiers – Chalmers was cured in two weeks.
Each summer Chalmers went away to the Bo Family Farm Camp in Michigan, where he endured homesickness, picking cherries alongside Italian prisoners of war, and eating trout. In high school, he thrived spending summers at Interlochen, where violinists had to spend one week in the viola section. He took to the viola like a fish to water.
In 1947, taking his doctor's advice to attend college in a warmer climate, Chalmers headed to Pomona College and was "never sick a day." He was asked to stand in as a film double for the violinist Jascha Heifetz. He graduated in 1951. He then entered Stanford Law School and graduated in 1954.
Early in his law career, Chalmers practiced in San Jose and played viola in the San Jose Symphony. Wanting to strike out on his own, he opened a private law practice in Palo Alto. He retired in 1993.
In 1964, he married Alice Schaffer. They honeymooned in Jamaica where he was repeatedly mistaken for Teddy Kennedy, who had recently vacationed there. They had two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth (Liz). Though he and Alice divorced in 1973, they remained lifelong friends.
As a bachelor, Chalmers was helpless in the kitchen, so he ate every meal in a restaurant. He took his girls on many adventures, including agreeing to a weekend trip driving them around in a Winnebego. He thrilled his young daughters with dramatic tellings of his cases, including The Man Without a Birthday, The Case of the Missing Violin, The Case of the Missing Diamond, and The Case of the Missing Finger (condensed versions on Youtube). The girls learned to harmonize, enjoyed all his made-up games, and delighted him with the smallest of gifts.
Chalmers loved underdogs. He was a loyal Peanuts fan, and with Charlie Brown as his alter ego, he started a family tradition of waiting until December 24 to buy the little Christmas tree no one wanted. This carried over to his legal career. He was particularly proud of a big win in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals against the Social Security Administration (Folsom v. Pearsall), and lawyers from around the country requested copies of his brief. In another case, he represented a court stenographer in a $50 fee dispute as a favor; it somehow ended up in the California Supreme Court, causing him endless anxiety.
At a dinner party hosted by enterprising friends, Chalmers met Carolyn Oleman Rumph. In addition to being a mother of three, a full-time music teacher, and a law school student at night, Carolyn was a phenomenal classical pianist. They married in 1977, and Chalmers was a devoted husband and stepfather. The couple shared a love of chamber music and played with many of the Bay Area's finest amateur musicians. Curtis and his wife Barbara moved to Palo Alto, and the brothers enjoyed playing piano trios together again.
Chalmers had an inimitable way of recounting the highlights and lowlights of his life. Once, he received an invitation from a friend to play chamber music with YoYo Ma and Emanuel Ax after their recital at Davies. Chalmers had the biggest car, so he was recruited to drive the performers to the party. Chalmers white-knuckled it up and down San Francisco's hills, praying he wouldn't get rear-ended with the Jacqueline du Pré Stradivarius cello in the trunk.
Carolyn and Chalmers were members of the Manzanita Piano Quartet, and Chalmers played viola in the San Andreas String Quartet most Monday evenings for over 50 years. Chalmers could play all the major repertoire on viola or violin and had a beautiful tone.
The couple subscribed to many musical series, including the SF Symphony, SF Opera, San Jose Chamber Music Society, San Francisco Performances, and Cal Performances. Chalmers was like a kid in a candy shop when the season brochures arrived, spending hours triangulating the best offerings.
Chalmers had eclectic interests. He held season tickets to the 49ers from the Kezar days and was in his seat at the 45-yard-line at Candlestick when Dwight Clark made "The Catch." He enjoyed investing (and was a member of an investment club for 50 years before it disbanded), being a Rotarian, and sharing his interest in WWII and Las Vegas with his stepson, Stephen. He collected minerals, attended Sharks games, read non-fiction, and enjoyed an occasional trip to the horse races. On a lark, he invested in a quarter horse, which then dropped dead in a field. Chalmers literally wouldn't hurt a fly, and he'd move heaven and earth to save a spider, much to the consternation of Carolyn.
Chalmers and Carolyn presided over a large, blended family. When it came to dispensing wisdom, Chalmers specialized in self-deprecating witticisms: "Nothing ventured, nothing lost," and "Never do today what you can put off 'til tomorrow."
Carolyn passed away in 2009, and a year later Chalmers moved to Channing House where his brother Curtis lived. Despite memory and health setbacks, Chalmers continued to travel, attend concerts, and play chamber music, and he never lost his courtly, gentlemanly manners and midwestern charm.
His pleasures were innumerable: movies at The Stanford Theater, the House of Prime Rib (where he started going in the 1950s), deviled eggs at the Peninsula Creamery, glazed donuts at Happy Donuts, lunches at Dinah's, whistling, strawberry shortcake, and getting back scratches from his daughters and grandchildren. He loved playing peekaboo with babies, hiding behind his ever-present handkerchief.
Chalmers never lost his Walter Mitty daydreams - being an impresario, owning a fountain, or filling in last-minute with a professional quartet. At age 90, he traveled with his daughter and grandson to his beloved Whiting and Interlochen. At 91, he played his last string quartets the month before the Covid-19 lockdown. His last 15 months he lived in skilled nursing, where he watched Classics Arts Showcase on KMTP, enjoying performances by musicians from yesteryear. When Covid rules allowed, he played duets with his daughter and grandson, and when the viola became too heavy, he switched back to violin. Up until the week before he died, he wondered when he would get to play with his friends again and looked forward to seeing Rameau's opera Platée in Berkeley. All his life, he had a desire to experience the beauty of the arts. He was generous, unassuming, and never said an unkind word.
Chalmers is survived by his daughters Sarah Smith (Paul Stein) and Liz Smith Currie (Chuck Currie); grandchildren Harriet, Walter, Jessie, Frances and Katherine; stepchildren Stephen Rumph, Todd Rumph (Ruth), and Alison Trembly (Ara); nieces Carolyn Davidson (Gordon) and Meg Smith; and his first wife Alice Smith. He was predeceased by his brother Curtis and sister-in-law Barbara Smith.
His family would like to thank the loving, skilled employees of Channing House in Palo Alto, especially in the Skilled Nursing department.
Chalmers did not want a memorial service. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the San Francisco Symphony, Save the Bay, or an underdog of your choice.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from May 17 to May 23, 2021.