July 2, 2011

In Memory of Robert W Smith

The legendary Robert W. Smith passed away July 1st, 2011. "Mr. Smith," as he was commonly known, was a martial artist with an intellectual bent, sharp wit, great erudition, and great kindness. He served on the editorial board of Taijiquan Journal, and never hesitated to share of his expertise.
Born in 1926 in Iowa, Smith had a fascinating life full of reading, study, practice, much of it revolving around the Asian martial arts. After service in the Marines, he delved into Asian studies, and then became a CIA analyst in Taiwan, then an important US Pacific ally. Smith used his spare time in Taiwan to meet and study with as many martial arts masters as he could. One of his main teachers was Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing. After returning to the US, Smith and his family settled in Bethesda, where he worked and taught taiji classes for many years. In 1988, Smith retired and moved with his wife, to the Asheville, North Carolina area.
Smith's output of writing was quite remarkable. Beginning in the 1950s, he wrote reports for numerous magazines about his encounters with martial masters in Asia, blending history, anecdotes, observations, and philosophy, often in a conversational manner that belied his scholarship. These articles were followed by many books about individual martial arts. He collaborated on books with such figures as Donn Draeger, Cheng Man-ch'ing, and Benjamin Lo. He never hesitated to help other writers or to give advice (always signing his letters with a scrawled "R. Smith").
Robert Smith was also known for his sense of humor, which included three tongue-in-cheek books written under the name "John Gilbey" (which some mistook as serious). In addition to his wit, Smith was a very erudite man; and his writing and speech was always peppered with quotes (and jokes) from great literary figures.
Smith's own impact on Western adoption of Asian martial arts should be researched. It is safe to say that he helped pave the way for the blossoming of those arts in the West in the 1960s, particularly through his articles in Black Belt, Strength & Fitness and other magazines that preceded the fitness craze of more recent years. Though his focus was on the martial arts end of things, he also understood the power of the martial arts to help make one a better person, and was outspoken about the need for that in the world.
Robert Smith's presence will be sorely missed by all who knew him. We are fortunate that he left behind such a rich written record and a most interesting memoir: Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century.
For further information about Robert Smith, see the Tai Chi Center's article. An extensive bibliography of his writings is found on the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts.

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