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North Obituary / Robert Laughlin Smith Sr.: Model railroad enthusiast helped create museum

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Alisha Hipwell

Model railroads were Robert Laughlin Smith Sr.'s passion.

His personal display consumed his entire basement. And after his retirement, sharing his love for the Lilliputian railroads consumed most of his time, too.

Mr. Smith, who was instrumental in the development of the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Richland, died Aug. 18 of amyloidosis at Sherwood Oaks Retirement Community in Cranberry, where he had lived since 1996. He was 82.

Mr. Smith, formerly of McCandless, was president of the the Pittsburgh Model Railroad Historical Society in the mid-1980s when it bought a building in Richland to house its work and renamed itself the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum. He continued as president until 1996.

His friend and fellow historical society member, Stanley Rosskamp of Denver, N.C., recalled the long hours that went into building the museum and its displays.

"I got off work at 3:30, and every day I'd go to the building and stay till 9 or 9:30 at night, and Bob was right there beside me," he said.

"Once he retired, he pretty much spent all his time there," said Mr. Smith's son, Robert Smith Jr., of Meadville, Crawford County.

The museum opened in the mid-80s and includes an authentic recreation of the Mon Valley line between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., as it appeared in the summer of 1952.

Mr. Smith was an accomplished oil and watercolor landscape painter -- Sherwood Oaks recently hosted an exhibit of his work -- and he used those skills to paint some of the scenery on the display. Rosskamp said Mr. Smith also coordinated the design of the Cumberland station, one of the more lavish sections of the display. He even traveled to Cumberland to study the area.

"I'm still impressed every time I look at the layout he did," Rosskamp said.

Born and raised in Squirrel Hill, Mr. Smith spent his summers at his family's 160-acre farm in McCandless, on land that is now the site of McIntyre Square shopping center. He moved to McCandless permanently in the early 1950s.

Mr. Smith graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School and earned a degree in fine arts from Carnegie Technical Institute, now Carnegie Mellon University. .

During World War II, he served as a mapmaker with the Army.

After the war, Mr. Smith designed industrial exhibits for Gardner Display in East Liberty, then became an account executive for another East Liberty industrial design company, GRS&W, which eventually became Giltspur. He retired in 1989.

In addition to painting, Mr. Smith enjoyed singing scat, an improvisational style using meaningless syllables to create a sound resembling a musical instrument. A photo from the war shows him in a basement bar in France, singing for a group of GIs.

Friends and family said he also had a wicked sense of humor and knew a joke to fit every occasion.

"He probably had the only model railroad that included a house of ill repute," his son said.

Mr. Smith was preceded in death by his wife, Stella Elizabeth "Penny" Smith, in 1996.

In addition to his son, he is survived by another son, Douglas Smith, of Asheville, N.C.; a daughter, Lynne Elizabeth, of Berkeley, Calif.; also five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 29 in Sherwood Oaks Retirement Community. H.P. Brandt Funeral Home in Ross handled the arrangements.

Alisha Hipwell is a freelance writer.

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