Trustee and benefactor Robert H. Smith dies at 81

Robert H. Smith, a University trustee emeritus and local entrepreneur, passed away Dec. 29 in Winchester, Va. of a stroke. He was 81.

In February 2008, Smith made the then-single largest donation in GW’s history, giving $10 million to renovate the Smith Center, which was named after his father, Charles E. Smith.

“We at The George Washington University mourn the passing of Bob Smith,” said Russell Ramsey, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “Bob helped guide the University to high levels of achievement, continuing a family tradition of leadership and philanthropy. Our thoughts are with Bob’s family and countless friends. He will be greatly missed.”

In addition to contributions to GW, Smith also donated nearly $100 million to his alma mater, the University of Maryland, becoming its single largest donor. Other institutions he contributed to include James Madison’s home at Montpelier, Mount Vernon, the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

In 2004, Smith donated $15 million to establish the Robert H. Smith Center of Jefferson Studies in Monticello. Va.

“Life is a two-way street,” Smith told a gallery publication in November, according to The Washington Post. “Those of us fortunate enough to generate more funds than we need have a responsibility to give back. I feel my responsibility is to America.”

University President Steven Knapp praised Smith’s philanthropic personality.

“Bob Smith was a great, indeed a visionary, philanthropist who was a tremendous supporter not only of this University and of his alma mater, the University of Maryland, but of countless institutions in the greater Washington area and beyond,” Knapp said in a statement to the GW community. “Just last week he was on our campus to offer his advice on the next phase of renovation of the center named for his father, Trustee Charles E. Smith.”

The Smith Hall of Art in GW’s Academic Center was also named after Robert and his wife Clarice, a GW alumna and former member of the GW faculty.

Smith took over the Charles E. Smith Company in 1967. Under Smith, the company became the single largest property owner in the D.C. region, according to The Washington Post.

Through the construction of numerous apartment houses and the Crystal City in Arlington, Smith and his company helped transform the D.C. region. In 1995, Forbes Magazine estimated the Smith family was worth more than $560 million.

In 2001, the Charles E. Smith Company merged with Vornado, a New York real estate leasing firm.

Knapp said Smith was “a leader in business and in the Jewish community, and he took special care to ensure that the altruistic values he proudly inherited from his father were handed down to his children and grandchildren.”

“He will be sorely missed by us all,” Knapp said.

For a decade, Smith was the president of the Board of Trustees for the National Art Gallery, to which he donated many important pieces. His and his wife’s private collection of Italian bronze Renaissance sculptures is world-renowned.

“The person who is afraid to take risks and make mistakes will never achieve everything of which he or she is capable,” Smith said during a commencement address at Maryland, according to The Washington Post. “That is because failure is the marker that tells us when we have reached our limits. One of the five greatest mistakes you can make in life is to be continually afraid you will make one.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Clarice, two children, Michelle J. Smith of D.C., and David Bruce Smith of Bethesda, Md. He is also survived by a sister, Arlene R. Kogod of D.C., and four grandchildren.

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