The Charles E. Smith family built the giant Crystal City complex near Ronald Reagan National Airport and donated hundreds of millions to good causes, most of them probably in and near Washington.
Names from the family went on the Charles E. Smith Athletic Center at George Washington University, the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, American University’s Kogod School of Business and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Charles Smith’s grandson, David Bruce Smith, paid tribute to him in a folksy and readable little book called Conversations with Papa Charlie.
So what happened when, on the Washingtonian Magazine’s 45th anniversary, the October 2010 issue listed 45 Who Shaped Washingtonian (subtitled “From 1965 to 2010, these people helped make our region what it is today”)?
Well, the magazine saw fit to mention worthy but minor celebrities like Maya Lin, who, as a 21-year-old Yalie, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Not a word appeared, however, about the Charles E. Smith family despite praise for other developers. Granted, family businesses merged years ago with large, out-of-town real estate conglomerates, lowering the Smiths’ profile. But the Washingtonian was looking back over the past 45 years. The Smiths if nothing else have been to D.C.-area Jewish philanthropies what Colonel Sanders was to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
During the four and a half decades, not all the news about the Smiths was positive. Crystal City exacerbated Northern Virginia’s overdevelopment, further befouling the air in our lungs and clogging our highways despite the Metro. And for the Connecticut newspapers, I myself disclosed Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s secret and illegal stake in a CIA-occupied building that the Smiths rented to the feds. Among the lease’s co-signers was none other than Robert H. Smith, the family member most responsible for Crystal City. No quid pro quo claimed here—this is one for historians to untangle, just like the blame for the collapse of a Smith building at Skyline Plaza where 14 workers died.
But without doubt the Smiths were among the most generous of local philanthropists, maybe the most generous; and, objectively, with Crystal City offices alone housing perhaps 60,000 office workers, should the Washingtonian have printed a Smithless list of present and past movers and shakers?
In Robert Smith’s obituary and a follow-up editorial, the Washington Post skipped over the negatives and made him out to be a flawless god. The Washingtonian sinned in the opposite direction and failed to recognize the Smiths and their ubiquitous good works. My guess is that the magazine’s omission of the Smiths was an innocent oversight by Denise Kersten Wills, a features editor who apparently has lived most of her life outside the Washington area. As a fellow, fallible journalist, I can well understand what might have happened. Still, as a D.C.-area history buff, I can’t help but look beyond the ironies and see at least an accidental injustice to the Smiths here. Hundreds of millions and not a syllable? Although the headline read “45” rather than “top 45,” I’d hope that commonsense would prevail. Perhaps Ms. Wills can append a clarification to the online version of the list and maybe even write a very brief item for the printed magazine. I’ll shoot her an e-mail.
Update, 9 p.m.: I did send a message via Facebook but have not yet received a reply.
Update, 8:56 a.m., Oct. 29: I notice that the Washington Post obit, source of the several hundred million figure, doesn’t specifically say that the contributions were for the D.C. region. So I’ve inserted “probably” in the first paragraph, based, among other things, on the fact that Robert Smith gave almost $100 million just to the University of Maryland.