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D.C. Developer Founded Civic-Minded Firm

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

William C. Smith Sr., 86, who founded a Washington real estate management and development company that has become a leader in civic involvement and renovating low-income apartment complexes in the city's distressed neighborhoods, died March 15 of kidney failure at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

William C. Smith & Co., founded in 1968, achieved its greatest expansion after Mr. Smith stepped back from daily operations around 1990 and turned over the business to his son W. Christopher Smith Jr., who is chief executive and handles the development side, and the son's college friend John Ritz, who is president and oversees property management.

The company has since plowed tens of millions of dollars into renovating housing complexes east of the Anacostia River, including the sprawling Parklands complex. It also built the Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus, known by the acronym THEARC. The campus, which opened in Anacostia in 2005, houses a variety of city services, from performance groups to the D.C. Legal Aid Society.

The elder Smith spent his early career in property management for Washington businessman Frank S. Phillips. After Phillips died in 1966, Mr. Smith and two former colleagues started William C. Smith & Co. and built it into a business of modest proportions.

Seldom courting or receiving media attention, Mr. Smith acquired a portfolio of mostly older apartments in the District's Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle areas. He called himself "the apartment-building doctor" and prided himself on long days immersed in the hands-on minutiae of fixing boilers and electrical panels, or helping people who had locked themselves out of their homes.

Joe Horning, principal owner of Horning Brothers developers, said Mr. Smith carved a specialty in buying existing, moderate-income buildings when Washington was still suffering after the 1968 riots spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"They were all turned into solid assets the family still owns and manages, and provided the family a building block to move forward," Horning said.

William Christopher Smith was born in Washington on Dec. 9, 1922. His father was a lawyer and accountant for the Internal Revenue Service.

Growing up in the District, he was a graduate of Central High School and was an Army Air Forces veteran of World War II. On the G.I. Bill, he received an associate's degree from George Washington University and began working for Phillips as an office boy.

Mr. Smith was not related to the Washington philanthropist and developer Charles E. Smith, but he developed his own manner of charitable giving. He disliked writing checks to causes, concerned that the money would not be used wisely.

Instead, he offered his renovation services to local charities and houses of worship, including the Ronald McDonald House, which provides lodging for families of gravely ill children, and Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. He once received a thank you letter from Mother Teresa, his family said.

Mr. Smith enjoyed playing baseball and softball and was inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2007.

In addition to his son, of Annapolis, survivors include his wife of 60 years, Lola Rocha Smith of Washington; four children, Nancy Miller of Washington, and twins Kelley Worman of Rye, N.Y., and Tracey Patch of Chevy Chase; a brother; 13 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. A son, Michael Smith, died in 1959 of an immune-deficiency disease.

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