Donald E. Smith, an engineer who worked in the field of rockets and missiles, dies

Donald E. Smith, a retired U.S. Defense Department engineer who worked in the field of rockets and missiles and was also a rose fancier, died May 16 from prostate cancer at the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville. He was 99.

The son of Earl Smith, a canning company executive, and Naomi Smith, a homemaker, Donald Earl Smith was born in Baltimore and raised in Highlandtown.


He was a 1937 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he enlisted in the Navy and served stateside, maintaining radar and sonar equipment.

After being discharged at the war’s end, Mr. Smith entered the Johns Hopkins University on the G.I. Bill and received a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He also received a professional engineer license.


Mr. Smith worked in research and development for the U.S. Department of Defense in the field of rockets and missiles.

His work connected him with NASA, and he became associated with astronauts and with Wernher von Braun, the former German aerospace engineer who became a leading figure in the development of rockets and America’s space program.

“He was at Cape Canaveral for two moon firings and later became closely acquainted with astronaut Mike Collins, who encircled the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, fellow astronauts. He was close friends with Mike Collins,” said the Rev. David S. Schafer, Mr. Smith’s personal representative and pastor of St. Benjamin’s Lutheran Church in Westminster.

He retired in the early 1980s.

“He kept his engineering license current into the 1990s and, after leaving the Defense Department, did some consulting work,” Mr. Schafer said.

In 1984, he married Marie Dippel.

“They had been a couple early on during their high school days and kept their friendship and relationship going, but did not marry until they were relatively old,” Mr. Schafer said.

The former Hamilton residents moved to Westminster in 1988 and became involved in education. The Smiths helped form the Carroll Community College Endowment Fund in 1990. At the college’s first graduation in 1994, they received a medal of support for higher education, recognizing their support of not only Carroll Community College, but others throughout the state of Maryland.


Mr. Smith established and endowed a scholarship at Carroll Community College for computer science and engineering students, while his wife established and endowed a scholarship in teaching. In 1998, the college honored the couple by naming the main road into campus Don & Marie Smith Drive.

The couple also enjoyed traveling and took a six-month trip around the world.

Mrs. Smith died in 2002.

Mr. Smith remained an avid gardener and was especially fond of tending his rose garden. When he relocated from Westminster to the retirement community in Sykesville, “he transferred all off his roses to Fairhaven,” Mr. Schafer said.

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“Don was incredible, and had a way with people. You don’t often think that a person with a scientific mind could be so outgoing, but he was,” Mr. Schafer said.

“He could talk with anyone and endeared himself to people. If you ever met Don, he was unforgettable,” he said. “He was short and slight, but had a personality that was huge. People counted themselves lucky that they had gotten to know him and were glad they did.”


Mr. Smith was a member of the Sykesville American Legion Post 223, the Elks, Moose and the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. He was also a Mason and a member of its Freedom Lodge. He had recently been honored by the Grand Chapter of Maryland for 70 years of Masonic service.

He was a member of St. Benjamin’s Lutheran Church and Springfield Presbyterian Church in Sykesville.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Fairhaven, 7200 Third Ave., Sykesville.

Mr. Smith is survived by a nephew and two nieces.