Review of the Life of Waldo LaSalle Schmitt
Father of Waldo Ernest Schmitt
Dr. David E. Lanar
It's early Spring, 1977. Even though he is 89 years old he still comes down the sidewalk at a brisk pace, eagerly scanning all faces for an acquaintance. He wears a white dress shirt with a black bow tie, a wide-throated black suit that gives just a suggestion of a tuxedo. His hair is close-cut, in what was earlier known as a crew cut. He carries an old-fashioned leather briefcase of unusually large size, which could carry several books and a bottle of wine, in addition to various papers and a lunch. In one of his pockets there is three or four brand-new key chains, attached to 1-inch clear plastic disks in each of which was embedded a tiny orange crab. These were for the children of any friends he might meet. Many of the older friends already had one. In another pocket were a couple of current utility bills. He walks along E Street in Washington DC to the Perpetual Savings & Loan were he has checks drawn to pay them - he didn't have, or want, a checking account. He paid his bills in person.
Having finished these simple errands, he heads to the bus stop at Ninth and Pennsylvania, to begin the 40-minute ride to his home, just outside of the District line in Takoma Park, MD. His wife, Alvina, had died the previous Fall and the house on the hill was still. Here, he lays aside his most constant companion, his hearing aid, and settles down to an evening of reading, writing letters, and a simple meal. His day had begun with an early bus ride downtown, a brisk walk to the domed Smithsonian Natural History Museum at the foot of Tenth Street, greetings to the guards at the door, and a climb up to his second floor office, taking the stairs two-at-a-time. His office was not large, although one couldn't really be sure of this, because it was so filled with storage cabinets that there was barely room for two chairs at a table, and even that was nearly covered with piles of papers and books. The cases contained the records and accumulations of a busy life of over seventy productive years, and elsewhere there were many cases to hold the overflow. For someone dropping in at noon, there was the makings of a lunch, and also the makings for an endless conversation. Unexpectedly in such circumstances, he was a good listener, but after listening he would explode with enthusiasm, ideas, and helpfulness. If such visitors were later queried about this man and their experiences with him, a remarkable picture would unfold. The following are quotations from such replies: "One of the nicest men; a man of boundless energy, intensely alive and enthusiastic." "A fine example of the old school of zoologists and one of the truly great naturalists; nothing seemed to escape him." " A person who unselfishly works for others." And "My own life is far more complete for having known him." This would be his last Spring. He would die that summer, on August 5th, at the age of 90 years. But his zest for life would live on. One small part of it touches us all here today, at Camp Schmitt.
So, who was Waldo LaSalle Schmitt and what was his relationship to Troop 33. We do know that 8 young men who had been members of Boy Scout Troop 33 served and died in WWII. Waldo Earnest Schmitt, Dr. Schmitt's son, was one of them. He was wounded on D-Day. After recovering in England he rejoined his men at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium where he was wounded again, captured by Germans and died in a German Hospital in 1946. Parents of the boys donated money to the troop in their honor. Dr. Schmitt gave the largest contribution, $1,200, a lot of money in those days. That amount nearly paid for the lands final purchase in 1959. Perhaps that is why the camp holds his name. Perhaps, but it was 15 years after Waldo Earnest died that the camp was named. To be remembered, above 7 other fallen comrades, fallen Scouts, truly would have been remarkable. But I have a feeling, that it was because of the father, Waldo LaSalle, who the camp founders wanted to honor. But I do not think this quiet man, this unassuming man, did not want to accept recognition for himself, but would quietly and graciously accept it for his son. So allow me a few minutes to tell you about Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. Think of him as your Grandfather. Because he thought of you as his grandchildren and worked to leave you this camp which bears the name of his son. George Adam Schmitt emigrated from Bavaria (Southern Germany) before the U.S. Civil War and settled in Boston, where he taught at Harvard University.
He married Louisa Schumann, a descendant of the German composer Robert Schumann. Among their children was Ewald, who became an engineer in Washington DC. His company was involved in construction of some of the government buildings including, it is said, finishing the Washington Monument, the dome of the Natural History Museum and the dome of the US Capitol. Ewald married Fanny Hesselbach and their second child was Waldo LaSalle, born June 25, 1887. Yes, today would be Waldo LaSalle Schmitt's 118th birthday! Early life for Waldo was not hard. His cousin LaSalle Spier relates some things about Waldo. He was assigned chores, such as emptying the drip-pan under the icebox and shoveling coal and snow, but he got no allowance and had no spending money. He was involved in minor pranks like roof-climbing but never got into real trouble of any sort. The boys built their own kites and other toys. In 1898, at the age of 11, he contracted Scarlet Fever, resulting in partial deafness that got worse over the years. In 1902, when Waldo was 15, Ernest Thompson Seton came with his new organization, Woodcraft Indians. Waldo and LaSalle immediately joined. They made many trips to Rock Creek Park, studied and practiced Indian lore, made teepees, bows and arrows, beadwork, pipes, tomahawks, and other implements out of soapstone from Soapstone Creek, a tributary of Rock Creek. Later Ernest Thompson Seton, inspired by Lord Baden Powell in England, turned his Woodcraft Indians into the Boy Scouts of America. Seton is now looked upon as the founder of the Boy Scouts in America. So Waldo was a Boy Scout, even before there were Boy Scouts. At Central High School in DC he took biology classes as electives and because he thought he would never go to college, stayed a fifth year in high school to take an extra class in zoology.
It is not mentioned but I assume he did not go in the Army because of his hearing problem. Though there was no war at the time and therefore no draft. In 1907, at the age of 20, he got an appointment as an aide in the Bureau of Plant Industry, part of the US Department of Agriculture. In 1910 he heard about a similar position in the Division of Marine Invertebrates of the US National Museum (which later became part of the Smithsonian). Here he met Miss Mary Jane Rathbun, Assistant Curator (to her brother, Richard) of the Division of Biology. She became his lifelong friend and mentor. He started attending classes at George Washington University. In 1911 he was sent by Richard and Mary Jane Rathbun to work on the USS Albatross to do a survey of the sea life in Lower California and the salmon in Alaska. He stayed on and, in early 1912, did a Biological Survey of the San Francisco Bay. He returned to DC and in 1913, got his B.S. Degree from George Washington University. In 1914 he was sent back to San Francisco as the Naturalist in Charge of Biological Activities in the Oregon/Washington State Fishing Cruises, Halibut Survey for the US Bureau of Fisheries. Of his life in San Francisco Bay he wrote some 60 years later this: "Edward Johnson and I lived on the ship and bummed around on the street, and we went to dances. I was very fond of dancing and met this girl who was a musician, a pianist. We got married." That was on November 19th, 1914. The woman was Alvina Stumm. He also took some classes at the Univ. of California, Berkeley from where, in 1916, he was awarded his Masters Degree.
In late 1914 he also was invited back to Washington to work at the US National Museum by Miss Rathbun, who wanted him to be an assistant curator so desperately that she resigned her position, and let her salary pay him. I presume, being unmarried, she was supported by her brother. She continued to work as an unpaid volunteer for more then 20 years industriously writing and cataloging crabs and other Crustacea. In 1919 (on June 2) his son, Waldo Earnest Schmitt, was born. In 1920, Mr. Schmitt (he was still a graduate student) became Associate Curator and then quickly Curator of Biology. It wasn't until 1922 that he received his Ph.D. from George Washington University. Over the next 36 years he held the title of Curator of one Division or another in the museum, and spent from 1947 to 1956 as Head Curator. He stayed on with the Smithsonian until just before his death on August 5, 1977. In memory of Dr. Schmitt the museum named their lecture room after him and a Google search today on "Waldo Schmitt" will turn up many hits on lectures being given in the room.
During his long time with the USNM he had many great scientific accomplishments. I will only list a few here: In 1925-27 he was awarded a Scholarship to make a collection of crustaceans of South American waters. He visited Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan and the Falkland Islands collecting over 15,000 specimen of invertebrates. In 1933-34 made 3 trips to the Galapagos Islands to collect samples, going again in 1938 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Cruise. Roosevelt said after this trip that Dr. Schmitt was so entertaining and delightful while also being so knowledgeable that he felt the Smithsonian should be renamed the "Schmittsonian". He visited the Galapagos again 3 times in 1941, '42, and '43 on "Secret" trips for the Department of Defense to an airfield on Baltra Island. In commemoration of those visits I have put here at Camp Schmitt a picture taken of Dr. Schmitt holding an iguana. I also had the great pleasure of visiting the Galapagos Islands last January (Dec 2004-Jan 2005) and I would like to present this picture of me with an iguana to sit aside that of Dr. Schmitt's here at Camp Schmitt. In 1948 he helped found the Society of Systematic Zoology and became the driving force of the Society for 15 years. In 1965 he published what many biologist consider the most complete books on the identification of Crustaceans (lobsters and crabs). Out of his own pocket he had small crab key chains made to give out to children. I have found a copy of this book and will when it arrives in a few days I will present it to the Troop to put in their library.
So that was a brief look at Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. He was a great scientist, a man who walked with Presidents. He was a visionary too. He knew that the spirit of life goes on even after one has past on. With his son, Waldo Ernest Schmitt, an Eagle Scout of our Troop 33, he got in touch again with children exploring the outdoors, looking at nature and the small things that make up life on our planet. He must have really enjoyed that. I am sure he must have accompanied Waldo Ernest on camping trips, helped him identify plants and animals. Can you imagine having the Head of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum help you identify plants and animals! Dr. Schmitt wanted to be remembered by children. Like the little crab key rings he gave out to children to remember him "Grandfather Waldo" gave something to you boys too. He gave you this land, this Camp. Every time you come here I hope you will remember the man who made it possible, Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. So, Happy Birthday Dr. Schmitt. And, on the occasion of your birthday and the 85th Anniversary of the founding of Troop 33 (June 6, 1920) I want to present to the Chairperson of our Troop Committee, Nancy Weil, a copy of this book: "The Zest for Life or Waldo Had a Pretty Good Run. The Life of Waldo LaSalle Schmitt," by Richard E. Blackwelder. It is now out of print and the only other copy I know of exists in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in the Achieves of Dr. Schmitt.