The Rev. Dr. Ben H. Smith, former rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton, who earlier had been the English department chair at what is now Mary Baldwin University, died May 7 from complications of a stroke at Sinai Hospital. The Towson resident was 88.
“I’ve known Ben for 25 years and he was a wonderfully warm person with a marvelous sense of humor,” said the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the 13th Episcopal bishop of Maryland, who served from 1995 until 2007.
“He was a very effective rector and he remained active with the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland at the cathedral after he retired from Good Shepherd,” said Bishop Ihloff, a Locust Point resident. “He was a loving and gentle man who was well-loved, and he had a dry Southern wit that endeared him to a lot of people.”
The Rt. Rev. John L. Rabb, who served as bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland from 1999 until retiring in 2011, described Father Smith as a “very special person.”
“Ben was probably the most genuinely humble person I’ve ever known and accepted with grace his many gifts,” said Bishop Rabb, a Tuscany-Canterbury resident. “He was a beautiful and kind man who was self-effacing to everyone. I was very fond of Ben, and he was a delight to work with.”
Jeffrey P. Ayres, a Lutherville resident who is chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a Venable LLP partner, was a longtime friend of Father Smith.
“Ben was very active in diocesan matters,” Mr. Ayres said. “He was an Old School type of country pastor: gentle, gregarious, self-deprecating and good with people.”
Ben Huddleston Smith Jr., son of Ben H. Smith Sr., an educator and coach, and his wife, Katherine Randolph Tucker, a teacher, was born in Richmond, Virginia, and after the death of his father when he was 10 relocated to Ashland, Virginia, with his mother and sister.
After graduating in 1950 from Henry Clay High School, he briefly considered a career in music as a professional organist or pianist, but entered Randolph-Macon College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953. He obtained a master’s degree in English in 1956 from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a Ph.D. in the discipline in 1962 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He came from Ashland to Staunton with a friend and his girlfriend, and met his future wife, the former Lilly Currell Simrill, a Mary Baldwin student, on a blind date. And by the end of the evening, family members said, she asked him to marry her.
The couple wed in 1955, and lived in various cities while he served in the Coast Guard in the mid-1950s.
Father Smith began teaching in 1960 at what was then Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, where he specialized in teaching Shakespeare and Chaucer, and eventually became chair of the English department.
He was also director of the Governor’s School for the Gifted at the college, and during the summer of 1968 taught a six-week course in 16th- and 17th-century history and literature in England at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University.
Ginger Mudd Galvez, a Guilford writer and a retired corporate communications executive, was an English major at Mary Baldwin, from which she graduated in 1973.
“I worked for him my senior year,” Ms. Galvez said. “He was an excellent teacher, very modest, and didn’t take himself too seriously. He was a great Anglophile, lover of Shakespeare and an ardent student of film.”
She added: “He was handsome and had a great laugh and the most beautiful Virginia accent.”
While in Staunton, Father Smith was an active communicant of Trinity Episcopal Church, where he was a member of its choir. He was also the organist for Emmanuel Episcopal Church and cantor for Temple House of Israel, both of which were in Staunton.
“Throughout this time, he felt a nagging pull elsewhere, a tug that was perhaps rooted in an experience he had as a child, when at six, he believed he heard God speak to him near a tree outside of summer Bible school,” according to a biographical profile furnished by his family.
He told his family that In 1979 while driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains to a job interview in Charlottesville, Virginia, he suddenly felt surrounded by an “otherworldly light, and heard an invisible voice say, ‘Why aren’t you doing what I want you to do?' "
Father Smith was in his 50s when he made the decision to leave academia and enter the priesthood. He took a leave of absence from Mary Baldwin and entered General Theological Seminary in New York City. He was ordained a deacon in 1982 and ordained into the priesthood in 1983.
He was associate rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, before coming to Good Shepherd in Ruxton in 1984. In addition to his parish responsibilities, he served as his wife’s caretaker after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1988. She died in 1999.
After retiring from Good Shepherd in 1999, Father Smith went to work for the Episcopal diocese at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, where he sang in the choir and was a part-time associate until retiring in 2015.
“Ben was really kind and gentle,” said the Rev. Scott Slater, who succeed Father Smith at Good Shepherd, where he was rector for nine years and since 2010 has been canon to the ordinary. “He was the quintessential Southern gentleman whose deep Virginia roots really came out. He was just a really good guy."
In addition to film and music, Father Smith enjoyed opera, literature, poetry and the theater. As a younger man, he acted in college and community theater, most notably as Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s “Tweflth Night” and as King Kaspar in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Father Smith integrated his appreciation of the arts into his work as a parish priest, and he also brought religion to the Charles Theater, where he hosted of “Reel Spirit” which explored religious and spiritual undertones in mainstream motion pictures.
“Ben was a beautiful renaissance person,” Bishop Rabb said.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a celebration of life gathering are incomplete.
Father Smith is survived by his son, Ben H. Smith III of Decatur, Georgia; three daughters, Lilly Richardson of Towson, Katherine Smith of Takoma Park and Sarah Hutchinson of Richmond, Virginia; a sister, Katherine Tinker of Ashland, Virginia; and eight grandchildren.