Margery Stafford



OBIT ISL-StaffordBASS HARBOR — Margery “Midge” Stafford, 93, an athlete who was inducted into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame; an adventurer who once climbed above the height of the first base camp of Mount Everest, trekked in Alaskan mountain ranges and traversed the Tibetan Plateau died at her home in Bass Harbor, Sunday July 19, 2015, in the presence of her family.

She was born Aug. 31, 1921, in Madison, Wis., the daughter of Harold and Hazel (Straight) Stafford.

Midge showed considerable athletic talent from an early age and as a teenager practiced ski jumping with the boys in the winter and beat those boys on the tennis court in the summer.

At 16, she showed such potential as a tennis player her grandfather sponsored her to travel to Berkeley, Calif., to get professional coaching. She remembered her time on the West Coast, learning the finer points of tennis, as one of the happiest of her life. That time was cut short, however, when her mother became ill and she was needed at home in Madison.

What sort of tennis career Midge might have had, if she had completed her training, was the big unanswered question of her life.

Back in Madison, Midge enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Class of 1942.

In addition to her athleticism, Midge was a knockout with wavy auburn hair, expressive brown eyes and pinup girl legs. All this plus her spirited personality were not lost on Paul Fremont-Smith, a charming and urbane young man from a prominent Boston family who had been sent to stay with relatives in Madison after a long illness.

Once he had elbowed aside Midge’s many beaus, their engagement was announced in the Madison Capital Times “Stafford to Marry Easterner.” They wed New Year’s Day, 1942. The first of the couple’s five children, Paul Jr., was born that first year.

The young family eventually settled in Paul’s hometown of Cambridge, Mass., where Midge managed their growing brood of children and he had enrolled at Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1946, the second in his class.

Summers were spent at Asticou Foreside, the Eliot cottage in Northeast Harbor.

Midge also found time for tennis at the Badminton and Tennis Club in Boston and on the lawns of the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline.

In the summer, she played at the Harbor Club, in Seal Harbor, the Bar Harbor Club and the Causeway Club in Southwest Harbor, where she retired many venerable old silver trophies as a singles player and as a doubles player with her partner Jane Wilmerding. She also participated in tournaments throughout New England. In her 30s and 40s, Midge was consistently ranked in the top five — often in the top three — in New England.

Her marriage to Paul ended in divorce after 20 years, and with her children she moved to Brookline, Mass.

Determined not to give up MDI, she spent the following summer at Mount Desert Campground with her three youngest children.

“We were the only campers who had a full silver service on our picnic table,” recalls her middle daughter Deborah Fremont-Smith. “Because mom kept bringing back trophies from the various clubs.”

A 10-year marriage to Harrison Rowbotham, the president of the New England Lawn Tennis Association and a nationally ranked doubles player, brought more mixed-doubles trophies into the home and ignited in her a passion for youth tennis development programs for inner city kids.

In 1970, Midge and Harrison bought a dilapidated 19th century farmhouse in Bass Harbor and restored it to life.

After a second divorce, Midge was done with marriage, but by no means done with men.

Her next male companion introduced her to trekking, in the wilderness of Alaska, Nepal and the Himalayas.

Her interest in travel brought her to China in 1978 with her youngest daughter, Frances, who was a Mandarin scholar studying in Hong Kong.

Midge was with her on Dec. 15, 1978, at a silk factory outside Beijing when Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter announced restoration of diplomatic relations over the radio.

Before leaving, Frances had secured a job in northeastern China, where Midge would join her the following year teaching English classes at the medical school and trading in her cozy Boston condo for a coldwater flat in a communist run compound.

At age 59, in a sort of mock Olympic event, Midge trounced the competition in a faux hand grenade-throwing contest, which she always felt helped quell any notions that Americans led a soft life.

Midge was also a gifted photographer and gave popular slide lectures about her travels in venues in Boston, local TV and to groups on MDI.

Despite these travels Midge managed to be present at the birth of her grandchildren and be an active grandparent to more than a dozen grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

In her 70s and still a beauty, Midge met her final life partner, Dr. Denny Pratt.

In their 16 years together they traveled to Russia, Alaska, Hong Kong and China, where Frances still lived. When not traveling they settled into the Bass Harbor house with tennis trips to Hilton Head. Denny tended to the flowerbeds and Midge grew the vegetables.

Midge also participated in the Senior Tennis Circuit in her 70s and 80s, and is likely still the only player who hailed from Maine to become number one in the country in her age category. She was also ranked in the top 10 internationally after playing in several European events.

In 1996, Midge was inducted into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., with her personal friend Bud Collins presiding.

At age 89, after all those decades of running after tennis balls and trekking, her knees failed her. Her last excursions on the court were with her grandson Eliot Jia, and great-grandchildren Katie Cody and James Lincoln.

Losing Denny and then her second son Christopher Fremont-Smith were terrible blows for Midge, but she continued to take great pleasure in her Bass Harbor home, which became a hub for many friends and family. Her Christmas parties were a highlight of the holiday season.

Not being able to drive and get out and about socially as she once did, did not stop men from finding Midge. Her last boyfriend was a younger man, 85-year-old Tilson Harkin, a developer and croquet player who conveniently lived nearby.

Til and Midge drove around the island and watched sports on TV often with the sound off so they could provide their own commentary.

A news hound and staunch Democrat, Midge also kept abreast of the political scene from the newspapers and on TV, for which she also supplied heated commentary.

In her final years, her love of competition was partially satisfied by Scrabble and weekly bridge games with her daughter Nan Lincoln and the late Doug and Ruth Hare.

In the past decade of her life, Midge survived open-heart surgery, a near-fatal car accident and some serious illnesses, but after she was hospitalized with a stroke, last week, it was clear she was not going to beat this one. Her final clear words were “my house” and her daughters and son Paul Jr. and daughter-in-law Carol, with the help of her wonderful caregivers Carolyn Maches, Marius Ramirez, Karen Matteson and Lisa Holler, with assistance from Hospice of Hancock County, were able to grant this final wish for her. She died peacefully with Denny’s gardens in view and with family and friends coming and going, as they have been throughout her long and interesting life.

In addition to her son Chris, she was predeceased by her twin sisters Jane Wilkie and Jean Dormer, who also made it to 93, and her brother Willard Stafford.

In addition to her four surviving children: Paul Fremont-Smith Jr., of Seal Harbor, and Ketchum, Idaho,; Nan Eliot Lincoln of Bass Harbor; Deborah Fremont-Smith of Sacramento Calif.; and Frances Hopkinson Fremont-Smith of Somesville and Beijing, China; she is survived by Denny’s children Virginia Agar of West Tremont and Joe Pratt of Philadelphia, Pa.; her grandchildren John Arrabit, Benjamin and Alexandra Lincoln, Heather Stephens, and Tom Fremont-Smith; Alexander Fremont-Smith, David Carroll, Eliot and Grace Jia and all their families; step-grandchildren Chase, Will, Sam and Reed Rowbotham, and 10 great-grandchildren who variously called her Mimi the Great, Lao Lao, or Gigi.

She also leaves her cat Hazel and a devoted dog and dinner companion Viola.

A service of celebration of her life is tentatively scheduled at the Somesville Meeting House, Sunday, Sept. 6, at 11 a.m., with the Rev. Victor Stanley presiding.

Friends who wish may donate to Midge’s memory to the Gwendolyn Dolliver Tennis Fund at Harbor House, P.O. Box 836, Southwest Harbor, ME 04679.

Know when to pay your respects.