By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008
Alson Howard Smith Jr., 80, a genial member of the Virginia House of Delegates for two decades and the holder of Tastee Freez franchises in Virginia, West Virginia and portions of Pennsylvania, died March 23 of a gastric disturbance at Westminster Canterbury, a nursing home in Winchester. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage three years ago and had been unable to move or talk since then.
In a 1982 article in The Washington Post, Mr. Smith, a Democrat who went by "Al," was described as "a short, rumpled Tastee Freez entrepreneur who quit school after the 12th grade, doesn't chair a major committee and still regularly confuses his syntax when he speaks."
Despite those presumed disadvantages, Mr. Smith had the ability to raise money -- quickly and in large amounts. As chief fundraiser for the 1981 Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Charles S. Robb (D), Mr. Smith raised more than $2.5 million, most of it from groups that had backed Republicans exclusively. His son, Alson H. "Skip" Smith III, said his father always got along well with Republicans -- with most everyone, in fact. In the House, he often played the role of peacemaker.
Mr. Smith told The Post that he was a bit mystified about his fundraising prowess, noting that there was nothing slick about his method or style. "He wore clothes," The Post observed, "that looked as if they were handed down from an over-sized uncle and will lift up his feet to show a visitor holes in the soles of his scuffed, wing-tip shoes."
Mr. Smith was a Depression baby, born in poverty in Virginia's apple country of Frederick County. His father died when Mr. Smith was 7, and his mother supported the family by picking apples. Growing up in Cedar Grove, Va., near Winchester, he never lived in a house with plumbing or electricity until he moved in with an uncle to attend high school in Winchester. He worked his way through school delivering groceries, pumping gas and trimming the apple trees of Harry F. Byrd, the patriarch of the Democratic political machine that dominated Virginia politics for a half-century.
When he wasn't working, Mr. Smith ran track; he held several state high school track records in the 1940s. He also got involved in politics. "My hero was Franklin Roosevelt," he told The Post in 1982. "And I grew up in the Byrd organization."
After graduating from high school in 1947, he served as a corporal with an Army military police company in Newfoundland. He began to buy Tastee Freez franchises in 1954, eventually owning 100 units. He also assumed leadership roles in several civic organizations in the Winchester area and raised money for civic and political causes.
Mr. Smith served in the House of Delegates from 1974 to 1993 and was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Mr. Smith received the Shenandoah Valley Bowl award for tourism on two occasions, was named Outstanding Virginian and served as president of the Winchester Jaycees and the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. He also was a member of the Izaak Walton League and a board member of the Virginia Environmental Endowment.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Margarette Cage Matthews Smith of Winchester; his son, of Winchester; a sister; and two grandchildren. Another son, David Matthew Smith, died in 1999.