S. Dillon Ripley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1964 to 1984, died in March at the age of 87. He created this magazine.
He was patrician but with a common touch, an urbane man who was right at home slogging through the jungles of New Guinea and India. When he took over the Smithsonian, he was determined to change the image of the place as a dusty attic populated solely by researchers counting beetles. He wanted to let in the air. He wanted to take this great scholarly complex to the people.
As part of that effort, he wanted to have a magazine aimed at a large general audience, a magazine that would cover all those subject areas that were of interest to the Institution. He proceeded to do so at considerable personal risk. There was little money for a start-up; general interest magazines had been dying left and right; and many people thought he was daft for even trying such a harebrained scheme. But Ripley prevailed. He hired Edward K. Thompson, a legendary editor of Life magazine, and Smithsonian was off and running.
Ripley had a particular fondness for his creation. Each month he liked to come to the layout room—in part perhaps to play hooky from the pressures of his office—to look at color proofs of the next issue and schmooze with the staff. When he saw or heard something that pleased him, his face would light up with an impish smile.
In some ways he seemed a man of the 19th century. His office was filled with Victorian furnishings, and his speech on occasion reflected another time—when he felt he needed to get busy, he was apt to say: “I’ll have to stir my stumps.” Yet his compass always pointed toward the future.
Dillon Ripley was born to privilege. As a youth he went to private schools and traveled widely in Europe and India. After graduating from Yale, he studied zoology at Columbia. At 23, he jumped at the chance to participate in an expedition to New Guinea, where he spent 18 months in the jungle collecting bird specimens.
Birds were always Ripley’s first love. At age 17, to attract waterfowl, he built a duck pond at the family estate in Connecticut. The pond, with its rafts of ducks and geese, would remain a focus of his life from then on. Ultimately, he would choose ornithology as his scientific field.
During World War II he joined the Office of Strategic Services, coordinating U.S. and British intelligence efforts in Southeast Asia. Once he was airlifted into a Thai jungle to meet with the king’s regent. He jumped from the plane with a machine gun in his hands and a tuxedo in his backpack. It’s a role he would have played with relish.
After the war he taught at Yale, and was serving as director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History when he was tapped to take over the Smithsonian. He decided from the beginning that he wanted the staid old place to become a destination where people could not only learn but have fun doing it. He made it kid-friendly by installing a carousel on the Mall and setting up a life-size fiberglass triceratops named Uncle Beazley in front of the Natural History Building so that the youngsters could play on its back. He inaugurated the very popular Folklife Festival with singing and dancing and arts and crafts from cultures around the nation and the world.
He generated a flurry of new initiatives, new programs, new museums. During his term, Harvard and the Smithsonian created the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started, revamped or completed the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Anacostia Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the National Air and Space Museum. He established new ecological research centers in Florida and Maryland.
He was a man who enjoyed his life and work to the fullest. I recall a summer afternoon at his house in western Connecticut. He was sitting on the patio, drinking a glass of wine and looking out over the pond he built so long ago at his beloved ducks and geese. A pair of Cochin bantam hens swirled around his feet like windup toys. A man at ease. And there it was—that impish smile.