William Rodman Smythe

January 6, 1930 ~ May 11, 2020 (age 90)


At the very beginning of 1930 and at what would become the midpoint in a long line of William R. Smythes, Rod was born in Los Angeles, California to William Ralph and Helen Keith Smythe. He spent the next 24 years living in the family home in Sierra Madre, CA. During those years, he had many adventures, including learning to ride the waves on an ironing board during a summer spent at San Diego's ocean beach while his father, a Caltech physics professor, worked in WW II efforts at Point Loma. With his mother and sister, Rod took a long train trip every fourth summer to visit Helen's relatives in the Boston area. He also fondly recalled many hikes and adventures at his family's cabin at Big Bear Lake. Rod got his first of many cars at age 15 and he continued to tinker with cars and everything else for the next 75 years.

Too young to fight in World War II, Rod was nonetheless fascinated by the machinery of war, particularly ships and planes. He was in the naval reserve at Caltech, where he earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and his PhD in physics. Flying back to LA after visiting a girlfriend in San Francisco, he recognized a young woman from his junior high school french class. He struck up a conversation, and in November of 1954, he and Carol Richardson were married. They lived in a rented pool house while he finished his PhD, converting a tool shed to a nursery when baby Stephanie arrived. After graduation, the young family headed north, first to Palo Alto, where Rod worked for General Electric, and then to Boulder, CO in 1957 when he took a faculty position in the growing Physics department at the University of Colorado.

This was a time of growth and activity. With the addition of three more children, Deborah, Will and Reed, the Smythe family settled into Boulder life. The CU physics department grew as well, and Rod split his professional time between teaching and research. He and his colleagues designed and built the cyclotron at the nuclear physics laboratory, which was used for more than 25 years, providing research opportunities for faculty and students from CU and other institutions.  After 38 years at CU, Rod retired in 1995, although he returned regularly to visit with his friends and colleagues.

Rod's love for physical activity and the outdoors was lifelong, and he was an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club, leading trips and teaching climbing school. He also spent many years as a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, including serving as group leader. It was routine for the phone to ring at odd hours in the Smythe household, and off he would go on a mission, whether rescuing a fallen climber from the Flatirons or Longs Peak or assisting in helicopter evacuations during a blizzard. Most summers included a family vacation, generally a road trip and frequently involving camping. Sometime in the 1960's, Rod added running to his repertoire of activities, heading out at lunchtime, usually with a group of coworkers.

Always competitive, Rod tracked his athletic exploits in his diary. His single line entries tend to record running or hiking times. Leaving his house in south Boulder and hiking rapidly up Bear Peak was one of his standards, and he also tracked his Bolder Boulder times. With increasing  age, eventually his times ceased to improve, so then he compared himself to his peers; disappointed if he didn't place as he thought he should. He missed a few Bolder Boulders, but not many. With some of his fellow senior runners, he won the over 80 team event at the  2011 national cross country championships.

Growing up, Rod loved spending time at his family's cabin at Big Bear Lake, CA. Carol loved the time spent at Camp Richardson, her family's small resort on Lake Tahoe. In 1977, Rod and Carol bought land near Allenspark, CO and spent the next few years building their own cabin.  Their younger children and friends got lots of construction experience, their old Dodge station wagon worked as a truck, and the cabin did indeed become Rod's favorite hangout and retreat and was the site of many family gatherings. 

In 1985, Carol was diagnosed with colon cancer, and she died on New Year's Eve,1987. The following year, on a cross country skiing trip,  Rod met Judy Travers, who shared his love of the mountains and running. They were married on New Year's Day, 1989.  After a sabbatical spent at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Rod and Judy returned to Boulder, and selling both their houses, moved to their home in west Boulder, chosen for its proximity to the mountains they both loved. 

Not long after their marriage, Judy was surprised (although his kids weren't) when Rod bought an airplane, reconnecting to his longtime love of flying. He became a serious student, getting his instrument rating, and he also spent many hours in a glider, soaring all over the Front Range and traveling to annual gatherings of those similarly passionate about the skies. Rod flew regularly, and often could be found at the Boulder airport piloting the tow plane for fellow soaring aficionados. He reluctantly stopped flying and sold his plane and gliders after he had a heart valve replacement at age 83.

Rod and Judy sold their Knollwood house and moved to the Frasier Meadows retirement community In February of 2019. Rod's dad had lived there in the 1980's, and in true Rod fashion, if it worked for his Dad, it would work for him. He celebrated his 90th birthday there with a family gathering in January. In the months prior to this landmark birthday, Rod had been slowing down both physically  and mentally. In April, the reason for this became clear. That previously replaced heart valve was now failing badly. It was time for hospice. Rod returned to his apartment at Frasier, and under the care of Judy and his children, beautifully supported by TRU hospice, he lived out his final days, passing on May 11, 2020.

Rod was preceded in death by both parents, his sister Sylvia, and his first wife, Carol. He is survived by his wife Judy and his four children: Stephanie Smythe, Deborah Smythe Christopher, Will Smythe and Reed Smythe. In addition he leaves behind his two step daughters, Connie Travers and Anne Travers, seven grandchildren and seven stepgrandchilden.

Owing to the Covid 19 pandemic, no memorial events are planned. We anticipate a celebration of his life to be held at a future date. If you would like to be updated about Rod's celebration of life, send an email to In the meantime, celebrate Rod with the outdoor activity of your choice, followed by a burrito and a beer.

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