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Howard Smith Was About More Than Books

Remembering A Life

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson once wrote, "Begin at the beginning...and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

We knew him as Lewis Carroll. He offered that advice in his story, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." It could also apply to the life and adventures of Howard Worth Smith, Jr.

His beginning occurred in 1914, the year an act of planned terrorism set the world on a course of more death and destruction for the next nine decades than all that had occurred in previous history. It was also a period of unbridled accomplishments to benefit mankind and exponentially expand human knowledge.

That juxtaposition also was woven through the fabric of Howard Smith's life — personal, professional and civic. He was a husband, father, lawyer, military veteran and civic activist. But, probably most of all, "He was absolutely, positively dedicated to books."

That was how Patrick M. O'Brien, director, Alexandria Library Administration, described the longest-serving member of the library Board. That tenure lasted for 63 years, with Smith stepping down as chairman in 2002.

"He hated to hear that the library provided anything but books. He liked to restrict any gift giving solely to books. But, by the time he did step down he seemed resigned that we had to get into other offerings," O'Brien said.

That assessment was buttressed by former Alexandria mayor and now State Senator Patricia Ticer. "I knew him for years. He was also my neighbor at one point. But my closest personal association with him was on the library board.

"He was very tenacious about his opinions. When we went to getting books on tape he pushed for more actual books. He also played a very important role in opening the Queen Street branch of the library."

Ticer acknowledged, "He often seemed brusk to some people. But, he was a very thoughtful and dedicated person underneath that exterior."

ONE WHO INITIALLY misinterpreted that exterior was E. Hunt Burke, president, Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Company. "For years I would pass him on the street and would say, 'Good morning Mr. Smith.' There was no answer and I thought he was just ignoring me.

"Then I realized he was deaf in one ear and that was the side I was passing," Burke remembered.

"Actually, he was a delightful and very humorous person. He would argue with people at the bank over interest rates. But never with me," Burke said.

Another Burke and Herbert officer who has fond memories of Howard Smith is Charles Collum, Chairman of the Board. "I first met Howard Smith in 1960 when I went to work for the Alexandria National Bank. He was a member of the Board of Directors. He was always a supporter of mine. He was a nice, nice man," Collum said.

Hunt Burke's initial contact with Smith was, "when I went to Episcopal with his son Howard," he said. Episcopal High School was another of Smith's loves, according to O'Brien.

"He was dedicated to Episcopal. On my first day here in 1992, I was in my office at the old Queen Street library and Howard came in to see how I was doing. He asked where I was living. When I told him near the high school, he started to rave about the high school," O'Brien said.

"After he left, I told my assistant how surprised I was about how enthusiastic Howard was about the high school. She quickly informed me he had not been talking about T.C. Williams. "He was talking about THE high school — Episcopal, she said," O'Brien related.

SMITH ALSO surprised O'Brien with his total support for the design of the new central library. "He was not only delighted that the city was getting a central library but he also was the biggest supporter of the Graves design for the library," O'Brien related.

Michael Graves, a renowned architect from Princeton, N.J., was known for his unconventional designs. He had done work for Disney and others. "When he was chosen as the architect for the new library, I thought Howard would be opposed. It was just the opposite," O'Brien said.

Coupled with his love of books was that for history. "He had an overwhelming interest in history," according to Jean Taylor Federico, director, Office of Historic Alexandria.

"Howard had a magnificent collection of antiques that all started with a set of candlesticks. He was very knowledgeable about antiques — knowing the background of pieces and other details. He often allowed us to borrow from his collection — particularly silver," she said. "I think of him as a very courtly gentleman."

That love of history and preservation serve Alexandria well. While only in his 20s, Smith spearheaded the restoration/preservation of Gadsby's Tavern.

"He organized the prime fund-raising to preserve the tavern when it was about to be torn down for redevelopment," Federico pointed out.

He not only once owned Lafayette House but also presided over its architectural restoration in concert with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The preservation of Old Town was an interest early on," said William Seale, Howard's son-in-law.

"He and his first wife, Cook, purchased and restored the 1807 house at 611 Queen St. He related that when you stepped into the entrance hall you could see down into the cellar and up to the top of the second floor," Seale said.

"But World War II intervened and the Smith's moved to Rosemont. He became a Lt. Colonel in the Army, with a responsibility for prisoner of war aspects of the Geneva Convention. Headquartered in one of the temporary buildings that covered the National Mall, he traveled extensively checking on conditions among the POW's brought to the United States for incarceration," Seale explained.

Marian Cook Foreman Smith died in 1947, leaving him with two daughters. He then married Marian Norris Smith and they had five children.

Seale recalled, "They built 3800 Seminary Road, then moved to the Lafayette House, where they lived for a decade. Following that they moved to Green's Steam Furniture Factory (an apartment house). In addition to the apartment, they resided at Cedar Hill, his family farm in Fauquier County. They also had a home in Rehoboth, Del." The second Mrs. Smith died in 2000.

"He did love Alexandria," Seale said. In addition to history, preservation and books, Smith was a founding member of the Alexandria Junior Chamber of Commerce, Alexandria Community Concerts Association and Little Theatre of Alexandria. His love of history and antiques was further expressed by his active involvement with the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, Mount Vernon Estate and Woodlawn Plantation, according to Seale.

IN ADDITION TO an active law practice, Smith served two terms as the Commonwealth's Attorney for Alexandria. He also was president of the Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys of Virginia and a former attorney for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After retiring from active law practice in the late 1990's, he joined the firm of Richards, McGettigan, Reilly and West, where he served of counsel.

An Alexandria native and life-long resident, Smith was the son of the area's long-time Democrat U.S. Representative. He was a graduate of Greenbriar Military Academy, West Virginia, Randolph Macon College, and what today is George Washington University Law School.

Love for his native city extended to involvement with his church, Christ Episcopal Church. He was a past president of the church's foundation and served on the vestry.

On January 5, Christ Episcopal Church was packed with those that came to honor his memory. During that memorial service, with the church still decorated for Christmas, his son, Howard Worth Smith III, related another insight to his father. "He loved Christmas. Each Christmas morning we competed to say "Christmas gift" to him first," he said.

"He gave of himself in so many ways — community, church, library, and passionate practice of the law. But, it is very meaningful that daddy died during the Christmas season and that we honor him during the Christmas season," his son eulogized. Other family members honored his memory by reading passages from the bible throughout the service.

Seale noted, "He had seven children, 17 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, His illness, pneumonia, was brief, under two weeks, and his death was sudden." He died in Inova Alexandria Hospital on December 29.