JOSEPH SCHMITT, SPACESUIT TECHNICAN FOR EARLY ASTRONAUTS
Joseph W. Schmitt, who as one of NASA’s earliest “suit techs” was often the last person to have face-to-face contact with astronauts before they shot skyward on their historic missions, died on Sept. 25 in Friendswood, Tex. He was 101.
His granddaughter, Susan Alexander, confirmed the death.
Mr. Schmitt put Alan Shepard into his Freedom 7 capsule for America’s first spaceflight in May 1961, and he was still suiting up astronauts more than 20 years later, making sure everything was sealed and connected properly. Before any flight, he would spend long hours in the testing laboratory with the astronauts, getting them accustomed to their suits and troubleshooting problems.
He wrangled suits through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and into the space shuttle era, a span during which spacesuits went from being, essentially, modified military gear to being high-tech creations that could protect an astronaut on a spacewalk or on a stroll on the moon.
His longevity and roots from the very start of the space program were occasion for some ribbing by colleagues.
“Joe suited up Orville and Wilbur,” Alan M. Rochford, a suit tech who worked with him beginning in 1960, said in a telephone interview.
Joseph William Schmitt was born on Jan. 2, 1916, in O’Fallon, Ill. His father, Benjamin, was a city marshal who was killed in the line of duty only a few weeks after Joseph’s birth. His mother, the former Apollonia Berkel, raised him and his siblings with the help of extended family.
In the 1930s, his high school principal, knowing Joe was mechanically inclined, suggested he join the Army Air Corps. He first studied aircraft engines but, with World War II still in the future, found himself looking for more to do.
“It was kind of a slow period,” Mr. Schmitt said in an oral history. “I asked if I could go back to take a parachute riggers course and also an aircraft clothing repair course.”
That proved pivotal when, after leaving the service in 1939, he found his way into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a forerunner of NASA. He started as an airplane mechanic, working on the 1947 flight in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, but was later put into its Space Task Group as the agency began thinking about manned spaceflights and what astronauts would need to wear.
As an equipment specialist, or a suit tech, Mr. Schmitt would accompany astronauts to the spacecraft and hook up the various connections that would keep them alive, monitor their health and enable them to communicate during flight. It was a job that above all required a high level of attentiveness.
“Joe was a perfectionist in many respects,” James W. McBarron II, his supervisor, recalled in a telephone interview.
Mr. Schmitt suited up John Glenn for the 1962 flight in which he became the first American to orbit the earth. The many missions he worked also included Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, and other Apollo missions, where a less-heralded part of the job — care of the suit after a flight — took on new significance.
“We vacuumed out all the moon dust,” Mr. Schmitt said in the oral history. “A lot of people at that time, contractors mostly, they would take some of that dust and try and give it to their friends.” Officials eventually clamped down on that practice, he said.
Mr. Schmitt married Elizabeth Ann Rayfield in 1939; she died in 2008. He is survived by a son, Joseph Michael; a daughter, Norma Jean Spencer; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Mr. Schmitt accumulated an enviable collection of mementos, including a medal with Mr. Schmitt’s initials on it that Glenn gave him after taking it with him into space.
He also made a game-show appearance: He was a mystery challenger on “What’s My Line?” in May 1963, just days after he had suited up Gordon Cooper for the final Mercury mission. (The celebrity panel surmised that he was part of the space program but failed to guess his role.)
He also became an artistic footnote during his NASA career: That’s him kneeling on the left in “Grissom and Young,” a 1965 painting Norman Rockwell made of the Gemini astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they’re being suited up. But Mr. Rochford said Mr. Schmitt is actually in the painting one and a half times.
Rockwell took photographs of the astronauts to work from, pictures that Mr. Schmitt posed for in his role as suit tech. Later, Rockwell asked NASA to send him a spacesuit so he could get the details just right. Mr. Schmitt brought a suit to Rockwell’s studio in Massachusetts and, Mr. Rochford said, told the artist that there were actually two suit techs for the Gemini 3 flight: He had dressed Mr. Young, while Mr. Rochford had dressed Mr. Grissom. So Rockwell obtained a photo of Mr. Rochford’s face and put a second suit tech into the painting, on the right.
“He took my head and put it on Joe’s neck,” said Mr. Rochford, who is 20 years Mr. Schmitt’s junior. “He put a young head on an old body.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the city where Mr. Schmitt died. It is Friendswood, Tex., not Friedswood. Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this obituary reversed the identification of the spacesuit technicians in the photo of Mr. Schmitt with two astronauts. Mr. Schmitt is on the left and Clyde Teague on the right, not the reverse.
GRADY TATE, JAZZ DRUMMER WHO TURNED VOCALIST
Grady Tate, a jazz drummer who was known for his work with Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald and many others and whose warm baritone led to a second career as a singer, died on Oct. 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.
His wife, Vivian, confirmed the death and said he had had dementia.
Mr. Tate started drumming professionally in the late 1950s and eventually became one of the busiest sidemen in jazz, recording with stars like Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Clark Terry and Billy Taylor.
“Listen to Quincy Jones’s famous recording of ‘Killer Joe,’” Loren Schoenberg, a saxophonist and founding director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said in a telephone interview. “Listen to Grady’s drums. It’s just phenomenal timing and rhythm that’s almost transparent. He was there to serve the music without the imposition of a defined personality or style.”
The bassist Christian McBride recalled the first time he saw Mr. Tate perform, at the Manhattan nightclub Indigo Blues with the pianist Sir Roland Hanna. “Mr. Tate is one of those rare, unsung heroes of the drums who you rarely kept your eye on when he played because you were busy dancing, moving and grooving,” Mr. McBride said in an email. “Like a truly great rhythm section player, you noticed his absence more than his presence.”
On records, Mr. Tate accompanied a wide range of singers, from Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin to Bette Midler and Paul Simon. He was also heard on the soundtrack to the original “Twin Peaks” series. The All Music website lists more than a thousand recording credits for him.
Peggy Lee, whom he accompanied on tour and on recordings, was a favorite of his. Mr. Tate told one of her biographers, Peter Richmond, that the real shows began after their nightclub gigs had ended, when the band jammed with her in her hotel suite.
“There were some performances you wouldn’t believe,” he was quoted as saying in “Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee” (2006). One night, he recalled, “I heard this voice, and the song that she was singing, whatever it was, she sounded more like Billie Holiday than Billie ever sounded.”
Miss Lee encouraged Mr. Tate’s desire to sing publicly. She had him sing “The Windmills of Your Mind” in 1968 as part of her set at the Copacabana in Manhattan.
“You know, that was not only a great thing Peggy did for me, it was also unprecedented,” Mr. Tate told Downbeat magazine in 1971. “Singers are a funny lot. The stage is all theirs and as a result, quite often they don’t want anything that has the remotest chance of upstaging them. That’s why the music is geared just so, the lights just so. But Peggy is a beautiful lady.”
He released several albums as a vocalist, starting in 1968 with “Windmills of My Mind.” He also sang “I Got Six” and “Naughty Number Nine” on “Schoolhouse Rock,” ABC’s long-running series of short educational cartoons.
“When you’re playing as a drummer, everybody’s playing and nobody cares a thing about you,” he told the pianist Marian McPartland on her NPR show “Piano Jazz” in 2009. “Everybody’s out front and the drummer’s in the back and you don’t get the play you should get.”
In contrast, he said, singing “is something that gets directly to the person.”
Grady Bernard Tate was born on Jan. 14, 1932, in Durham, N.C. His father, also named Grady, was a stonemason. His mother, Elizabeth, was the dean of women at a local business school. He played drums and sang, but when his voice changed he stopped singing.
He recalled being mesmerized as Mr. Jones, “the craziest man I’ve ever seen in my life,” played with unalloyed joy. Afterward, Mr. Jones invited him onto the stage and asked if he had brought his drumsticks with him.
“No, sir,” Mr. Tate said, and Mr. Jones offered his own pair but whacked one of his hands with them. “That’s just a tiny bit of the pain that you’re going to get,” Mr. Jones said, “if you’re gonna pick these damn things up and use ’em.”
In the Air Force, Mr. Tate played in a 21-piece stateside band, where he worked with the trumpeter and arranger Bill Berry. After his discharge, he graduated from North Carolina Central University with a bachelor’s degree in English and drama and then moved to Washington, where he briefly taught at a high school and worked in the post office.
One musician he knew in Washington, the saxophonist Herschel McGinnis, took him to see the organist Wild Bill Davis play. Emboldened, Mr. Tate asked Mr. Davis if he could sit in for one number. It proved to be an epiphany.
“I hadn’t played drums in so long,” Mr. Tate said in a 2005 interview with the newspaper Port Folio Weekly. “I just exploded. When we finished, it was like the cleansing of my life, everything was out.
“The next day the phone rang. My wife said, ‘It’s Wild Bill Davis!’ He said: ‘I was wondering. Would you like to work with my band? We’re opening in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. Are you in?’”
He stayed with Mr. Davis for a few years and then took a detour, moving to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Ultimately, he said, although he loved acting, he did not pursue it because he felt that the instructors and other actors were insincere.
In 1962 another saxophonist, Jerome Richardson, intervened to bring Mr. Tate back to music; he was with Quincy Jones’s big band, which had lost its drummer as it prepared to go on tour. Would Mr. Tate play with the band for a while? He went to a rehearsal, where Mr. Jones “seemed to call all the tunes that I knew,” he recalled.
Working with Mr. Jones led Mr. Tate to decades of studio work. He was also a member of the “Tonight Show” band for several years before the show moved from New York to California in 1972.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Grady Jr.
In his later years, Mr. Tate sang more and played the drums less.
“I had never thought of singing as a career, which it is for me now,” he said in 2005. “I don’t know how it happened; I just go with the flow. And I find that to be totally acceptable.”