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Pikesville man, 89, spends lifetime crafting model ships

Community Times

You could call Jerome Smith a model citizen.

That's because of the 89-year-old's lifelong hobby: collecting and building models of classic boats and airplanes. The shelves, walls, ceilings and even the floor of the office in his Pikesville home are covered with hundreds of models, ranging from vintage World War II war ships, to replicas of warplanes from Japan, Russia, China, France and Britain.

"It's a serious hang-up," Smith said. "The next model I build will end up in the bathroom because there isn't any more room."

Smith's passion for model building started early. He built his first model, a World War II C-47 military transport aircraft with the help of his grandfather.

"My grandfather always told me about the beautiful war ships that were there," Smith said of Newport News, Va., where his grandfather lived. It is home to Newport News Shipbuilding and several major naval installations. "If I had a nickel, I'd go out and buy a model and a tube of glue."

Growing up in Baltimore, Smith made "recognition models," which were made of wood and used during World War II to help pilots refrain from shooting down their own planes. He remembers going to what is now the Inner Harbor and Locust Point to admire the many boats docked there.

Smith graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the University of Maryland. During the Korean War he served in the Army as a typist in Germany. Getting modeling supplies wasn't an option, so he turned to another medium — soap — to keep his skills sharp. Smith bought blocks of soap at the base PX and used a pen knife to whittle them into comic shapes, then painted them with watercolor and acrylic paints.

"When you had time you fiddled around with them," said Smith, who quickly resumed his model-building hobby after leaving the Army in 1952. Several of the 6-inch-tall soap-carved figurines resembling Polynesian totems are displayed in his office.

After Smith's first wife died, he courted his childhood sweetheart after reconnecting while shopping in Pikesville. He moved into Pikesville apartment and quickly took over her children's old bedroom, now crammed full of model ships, airplanes, model soldiers, magazines and model-related miscellany.

"I said, if I can have this office, I'll marry you," Smith joked about Renee Smith.

Sitting at one of the two desks in his office, Smith is engulfed by the tools of his model-building trade. He employs club sandwich-length toothpicks to put a dab of glue on a piece of paper and then uses the tip of the toothpick to apply the glue to one of the thousands of parts needed to complete his intricate models. Other tools in his arsenal are penknives, razors, pliers, tweezers, files, vices, paint brushes and scissors.

The most-common materials used for ship models are wood, plastic, cast lead or alloys, and sometimes paper. Model kits, which can cost upward of $500 and take years to finish, appeal to Smith's personality. "I'm a perfectionist," he admitted. "But my wife thinks I'm a slob."

Among the boats in his vast collection is a 1950s-era aircraft carrier. "I built that on my honeymoon," Smith said.

Model builders work from elaborate, multi-page diagrams. After Smith finishes his creations he buys nameplates from an office supplier to display in front of the completed models.

Smith's current project is the 5-foot-long model of the HMS Hood, the last battle cruiser built for the Royal Navy. The Hood was one of the battleships sent to sink the German ship Bismarck. It was sunk during the battle of the Denmark Strait during World War ll.

The HMS Hood model consists of more than 1,500 parts. Smith has been working on the model for months. "It's not the kind of thing you can work on for eight hours straight," he said.

Smith typically works on projects for an hour or two each day before taking a break to do word jumbles or peruse one of the hundreds of books on military history that line the walls of his library. His bookcases brim with volume upon volume of books and specialized publications such as "God and Sea Power" and a "Dictionary of Military Quotations."

But even for military history aficionados, some model builders can take things too far. "A lot of guys play war games with this stuff," said Smith, who confines his collecting to simply displaying his works.

Once an avid stamp collector — Smith was president of the Chesapeake Philatelic Society — he sold his albums years ago. He also admitted that he's destroyed a few models out of frustration, acts he now rues. Smith has learned it's best to put difficult models away rather than destroying them.

No instant gratification

Building models of ships dates from ancient times. Models of Greek ships have been discovered by archaeologists who speculate that models were used as burial offerings and as household articles.

The popularity of ship modeling in the United States began in the late 1920s when Popular Science magazine published a series of articles and plans for famous ships by modeler and former Navy officer E. Armitage McCann.

Nearly 100 years later, model builders like Jerome Smith seem to be part of a vanishing breed of hobbyists.

"Model building is a hobby that's sitting in its easy chair with its feet up," said Charlie Hammond, a salesman at HobbyTown in Parkville. "There is still an interest, although there aren't as many as there were 20 years ago."

"Model ship-building takes a long time," added Kurt Van Dahm, chairman of the Illinois-based Nautical Research Guild, a nonprofit for professional and amateur ship modelers. "The trend has been for instant gratification. We're not seeing a lot of young people interested in it."

For Smith, the biggest concern isn't the closing of local hobby stores [HobbyTown is closing in 2017], lost pieces or complicated designs, at 89, he said his biggest nemesis is "T-I-M-E."

Even after more than a half-century of building and collecting models, Smith said he still can't say exactly what has driven his obsession.

"I can't explain it," Smith said. "I just do it."

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