By Kathryn G. Menu
Russell “Jim” Smyth, the owner of Sag Harbor’s Corner Bar, and a resident of North Haven, died on June 19, 2017, with his family by his side. He was 66 years old.
Mr. Smyth was remembered this week by family and friends as a man filled with immense strength and love, occasionally mischievous, and wholly devoted to the communities of North Haven and Sag Harbor, to the water he sailed on, and especially to his wife, Margaret.
“Their relationship was passionate, and filled with love,” said Margaret’s sister, Rosemarie “Rhodi” Cary Winchell, who grew up along with her five sisters with Mr. Smyth in Sag Harbor. “We were at dinner one night — all the sisters and our husbands and boyfriends, and he threw the napkin in the middle of the table and said, ‘I am throwing in the napkin, and I am going to marry your sister’ and he became a part of the family, although he really was always a part of our family.”
Mr. Smyth was born on June 26, 1950, to the late Dr. Russell and Carroll Babcock Smyth. He was a lifelong resident of Sag Harbor and North Haven, attending Pierson High School, but graduated from New York Military Academy in 1968. He was a student at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
It was sailing on his father’s boat, the Dulcinea, that Mr. Smyth developed a passion for the sport, said his longtime friend Bruce Tait.
“He grew up sailing on local waters and worked to perpetuate that for local kids,” said Robert Camerino, commodore of the Sag Harbor Yacht Club and a friend. “Jim really was the heart and soul of Sag Harbor’s waterfront and the sailing community.”
Working with people like his good friend Bart Gullong, Nancy Haynes and Mr. Tait, Mr. Smyth was instrumental in the founding of the Breakwater Yacht Club, conceived, said Mr. Gullong, as an informal club for anyone interested in sailing. He served as commodore of the Breakwater for three terms, and during his tenure, worked with other members of the club to secure a lease to village property on Bay Street, where the clubhouse now stands. He could often be found racing his boat, White Lightning, during the Wednesday nights sailing series.
“It took a lot of work, and a lot of vision, to secure that lease,” said Mr. Tait. “We had literally been running a junior sailing program out of a tent out of Lou’s [Grignon] Yacht Yard … founding this club and securing that lease is a real legacy for Jim. He has made it possible for many people to sail who would have never had the opportunity otherwise.”
Another of Mr. Smyth’s legacies is, of course, the Corner Bar, which became the watering hole for Sag Harbor and later morphed into a popular restaurant. Mr. Smyth opened the bar in 1978 after a stint as the bartender at the Black Buoy.
“He really wanted a bar of his own,” remembers Ms. Winchell, and so when the Whaler Bar at the corner of Bay and Main Street became available, Mr. Smyth and a group of colleagues purchased it, inviting friends, including the Cary sisters, to work at the Corner and help him manage it.
“For so long, it was the place where everyone gathered after every sailing race — after everything, really,” said Mr. Tait. “That place was open even if there was a hurricane. Major snowstorm — The Corner was open, even if Jim had to set up candles.”
“Sag Harbor was a pirate town,” said Mr. Gullong. “To be a young person at the time — the world was our oyster, and after Jimmy opened the bar, it made a lot of things possible for a lot of us. Next thing you know, we are delivering boats, sailing, going to NASCAR races.”
Mr. Smyth and Mr. Gullong, along with Ms. Winchell and other Corner Bar regulars, would hit the road with the band Pure Prairie League, whose single “Aime” climbed the Billboard charts in the 1970s. Mr. Smyth, was often invited on stage for “Aime,” although his microphone would be turned down. “Neither of us could carry a tune in a bucket,” laughed Mr. Gulong.
While Mr. Smyth had an adventurous life, it was Sag Harbor and North Haven where he was truly devoted.
“He considered himself responsible for Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Gullong. “He felt a tremendously powerful responsibility to protect the harbor. It wasn’t just his home — it was his life. The idea of Sag Harbor was intertwined with his father. It was his playground, it was everything.”
Mr. Smyth served on several civic organizations, and was a member of the Sag Harbor Fire Department. He was also was a member of the North Haven Zoning Board of Appeals from 2000 to 2003. He served on the Harbor Committee from 2004 to 2010, and was elected to the North Haven Village Board of Trustees in 2005, serving for eight years, including three years as deputy mayor, and three months as interim mayor before retiring from public service in 2012.
“He was a great trustee,” said North Haven Mayor Jeff Sander. “He had a sense for the right things, the public interest in the village, what was important. He was instrumental in work we did on harbor management, our dock law and a number of other initiatives. He’s a solid guy — I learned a lot from him.”
“One of the things you will find is Jim liked to take care of his people, of his friends,” said Mr. Tait. “People who were down and out — he had them at the Corner if he could. He would take them in, he would give them a job. He just wanted to help.”
Mr. Smyth’s step-daughter, Aimee Webb, celebrated him as a conservationist who made friends wherever he went. “He knew so many people — his friendships literally circumnavigated the globe,” she said. “Dear ones as far away as New Zealand are thinking of him this week.
“Jim was an intelligent, clever, kind and witty man who laughed easily and loved deeply,” she added. “He loved Sag Harbor, land and sea, and devoted himself to her best interests. He invested himself in everything he pursued.”
Mr. Smyth supported non-profits, including the Nature Conservancy, the Ocean Conservancy, youth sport initiatives, the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Walter Reed Hospital, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Special Olympics and CfAR, among others.
Besides his wife, Mr. Smyth leaves his sisters, Barbara (Enrique), Sharon, Debbie (Bob) and Suzan; step-children Aimee and Chad, daughter-in-law Jessica, granddaughter Georgia, beloved nieces, nephews, cousins and a community of friends. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the Sag Harbor Fire Department, the Sag Harbor Booster Foundation, or Good Shepard Hospice in Port Jefferson.
A wake will be held on Saturday, June 24, from 3 to 9 p.m. at Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in Sag Harbor. On Sunday, June 25, funeral services will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Meetinghouse of the South Fork on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike at 2 p.m. with a reception to follow at the Sag Harbor Fire Department headquarters on Brick Kiln Road.