Senior Times: Ralph Smith, From Magistrate To Volunteer

By: Jennifer Sexton-Riley


Some volunteers possess a quality beyond mere free time and a willingness to do some good free of compensation. The ones who really stand out are those who, when working with those in need, manage to minimize any feelings of discomfort associated with needing help, replacing them with warmth and camaraderie. Such a person is retired federal judge Ralph Smith of Harwich, age 80, who volunteers at both the Harwich Council on Aging and the Family Pantry of Cape Cod.
Although he dislikes playing what he calls “the lawyer card,” Smith admits that there are times, especially when helping the elderly with increasingly bold telephone and mail scammers, when his legal know-how comes in handy.
The longest-serving magistrate in the history of the U.S. Northern District of New York, Smith grew up on a small chicken farm in the town of Ghent, southeast of Albany, N.Y. A bright boy, Smith felt bored in his classes in a small, three-room schoolhouse and was soon allowed to skip grades. He graduated from high school at age 15, and promptly entered Yale as a Ford Foundation scholar with a full scholarship. He received his bachelor's degree at the age of 19. “I'm not bragging,” he is quick to add. “That's just what happened.”
Smith entered the Navy for a period of six years and briefly vacillated between a career in the military and a career in law. He chose to pursue the latter, though he would remain in the U.S. Navy Reserve for another 20 years. He entered Albany Law School in 1966 with a scholarship.
“I think my parents were pleased, because this would keep me close to home,” Smith says.
After graduation, Smith began his career in law in private practice with a firm in Albany, then went on to become an assistant district attorney after only a few years. He was named district attorney of Albany County and went on to work in the state attorney general's office. When a judgeship opened five years later, Smith applied and was appointed a U.S. magistrate judge in 1982, a position he held for nearly 20 years.
It was in the late 1980s that Smith and his wife began to vacation on Cape Cod, camping in Nickerson State Park in a two-person tent.
“We loved it,” he recalls. “We loved the bike paths, beaches, kayaking, sailing. We had a friend with sailboats.”
Soon the pair began renting a small house on the Cape in the summertime. Sometimes Smith would commute to work in Albany while his wife remained on the Cape. Smith remembers receiving a phone call from his wife during such a time.
“The law clerk came in and said that my wife was on the phone. She needed to talk to me right now,” Smith recalls. “So I excused the jury, apologized to the lawyers and went to the phone. She said she was standing in a house in Harwich with a real estate agent, and we needed to make an offer today. That's how we came to buy our first house on the Cape. Over the telephone.”
The new proud owners of a one-bedroom house on Cape Cod, like many new washashores the Smiths soon discovered they had many more friends wishing to visit than they realized. They soon moved to a three-bedroom, and a few years later they made an offer on the house they currently own while they were there for a garage sale.
“I am one of the few people who has gone to a garage sale and bought the garage,” Smith laughs. “And the house.”
Smith retired on his 65th birthday, and the two took up full-time residence in the Harwich Port home.
“I never had time to volunteer when I was working as a prosecuting attorney and when I ascended to the bench,” Smith says. “When I retired I wanted to put what talents I have to use for somebody.”
He began volunteering at the Harwich Council on Aging, and found himself helping older widows with balancing their checkbooks and making sure their household finances were in order.
“Many of these ladies were not sure how any of it works, because their husbands were the ones who handled all of this sort of thing,” Smith says.
During a trip to a local bank on behalf of one such widow, a bank employee told Smith that the bank was overrun with telephone calls from older ladies inquiring about their account balances and struggling to make sense of their checkbook ledgers.
“So that is exactly what I do,” Smith says. “I also sort through people’s mail, anything a person living alone needs that isn’t legal advice. I love to do it. It’s fun.”
Sometimes he comes to the rescue when someone falls victim to one of the many scams being perpetrated on our elders via telephone and mail.
“Once a woman in her 90s fell for a fraudulent call, and before she knew it they had billed $1,000 on her credit card. I called the company on her behalf and, well, I don’t like to pull the lawyer card, but I told him I spent years as a criminal prosecutor and I was going to take him and his company to the mat on this. I got the $1,000 back.”
Smith now serves on the board of directors at the council on aging, as well on the community center's facilities committee. He is also on the board of directors at The Family Pantry of Cape Cod. He volunteers there, and his friendly manner helps put new clients at ease.
“I enjoy working with people without making them feel badly about the situation,” Smith says. “I seem to have a talent for it, I think. I signed up a woman recently, and she told me she had come in ready to cry and left with a smile on her face.”