COOPERSTOWN – Harry William (Bill) Smith, Jr. passed away on August 10, 2016, leaving behind a legacy that will not soon be forgotten, as his passions, love and interests spread far and wide.
Smith leaves behind memories with relatives and friends that include the automotive industry, motor racing, skiing, helping communities and spending time with those close to him. Along with content given to us by his family, some of his friends and colleagues shared fond memories and stories with The Evening Sun.
Born October 22, 1927 in Utica, and raised in Richfield Springs and Cooperstown, Smith became an Eagle Scout and graduated from Richfield Springs High School. He then went on to earn his B.S. from Union College in 1945 through the Navy V-12 program. He additionally studied business at Syracuse University.
In 1947, Smith joined the Ford Motor Company’s Executive Management Training Program, and then relocated to Norwich two years later where he purchased a Ford auto dealership.
This made him one of the youngest dealers in the United States.
Smith was President of Smith-Norwich for 55 years, as well as Presidents of H. W. Smith & Sons, Inc., Harry W. Smith Real Estate Corp., and Smith-Cooperstown, Inc. in Cooperstown. He was a partner in Nordic Ford in Burlington, VT.
His accomplishments in the auto industry also include member of the Ford National Dealer Council, Vice-Chairman, and member of the initial Ford Taurus development team. He was a Director of the New York State Auto Dealers Association and a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Bill was the past chairman of the Ford Dealers Advertising Fund (FDAF), and he was the Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year in 2000.
“Bill Smith had a larger personality than any three other people combined. Before you saw him his laugh signaled his presence – and promised a good story. I first discovered his sense of humor and adventure 25 years ago on a bike trip in Provence, where he managed somehow to put on a dazzling fireworks display on the grounds of our hotel,” said Bill Plante of CBS News. “His appetite for adventure was never sated – whether it was skiing, Formula One racing, or traveling the world. He was a man of style – never without a coat and tie at dinner. When I committed the gaffe of showing up at the final dinner of the trip without a tie , he offered me one - fashioned from a bicycle inner tube. Traveling and visiting with him over the years, I learned the depth of his commitment to his family, his work and to the many charities he supported. Best of all, when you got him alone, Bill Smith was more than just a great raconteur. He was also a thoughtful listener, a man with the deep knowledge and experience of a life well lived.”
V. Daniel Robinson, President of New York Central Mutual Insurance Company, also had many fond memories of Smith.
“His phone call to me on Sunday is one I will never forget. He left me speechless and there were so many things I wish I could have said. But that moment with him meant so much and in typical fashion, his last statement was," how is the company doing?" Now that was Bill, always putting others first,” Robinson said. “In reflecting back, Bill served on our Board for over 35 years. He was someone that was both easy to talk to about anything and a person who would have advise that was right on. He was not bashful about bringing up issues and praising when the right things were done. His influence on helping me through many tough times was invaluable. He always loved talking politics. Bill had so many perspectives on so many issues that came from a life of hard work, travel and the many friends he had. Knowing Bill the way I did, I could see why he had so many friends. He made you feel comfortable, no matter who you were. He always had concern for how the company was perceived and always did what was right.That was his character … that was Bill.”
Continued Robinson,“Bill will be so dearly missed. He has left an impression on NYCM, myself and everyone he has touched. I can tell you that I am proud to say, he was my friend.”
Former president of NBT Bank, Daryl Forsythe, shared, “I became acquainted with Bill in 1988 when I was asked to join the NBT Bank board. Bill at time was a director of the bank and newly formed NBT Bancorp Inc. which was the stock company that owned the bank. He was a great mentor and spent valuable time with me teaching me the ropes of how to be a good director by word and example. A few years later in the mid 90s, Bill and many shareholders became frustrated with the way in which the company was being led. Then in 1994 I was asked to assume the role of CEO shortly after the former CEO was dismissed. I immediately sought council from Bill as I began to formulate how I planned on turning the company around and asked for and received his backing in this endeavor. His many years of experience on the bank boards and his unique perspective on the company and communities we served were of priceless value to me and greatly influenced many of the decisions I made during the next few years as we returned NBT to its former prominence and put the company on its current profitable growth trajectory.”
Forsythe continued, “For those who knew Bill, you no doubt would agree that he was quite forthcoming with his opinions and views on a variety of subjects! It is one of the characteristics that made him special. He was passionate about those things he cared deeply about, including his family, community and country. While we didn't always agree on various points we nonetheless remained close friends that respected each other. His influence and generosity will continue to be felt for many years around Norwich, Cooperstown, Vail and the mid west. He touched many lives through his work, the boards he served on and through his sport endeavors. He was a renaissance man in many ways and his life accomplishments were many. He will be greatly missed.”
Raymond S. Benton, the CEO of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, MD said of Smith, “Bill squeezed every bit out of his life. He was a totally responsible person in taking care of the people around him. If Bill said he would do something, it was done. Bill was a brilliant businessman, a wonderful husband and father. His serious side was balanced by a unique sense of fun and a curiosity to keep learning until his last day. I miss him already.”
“When I arrived in Norwich in 1973, one of the very first people Ralph St. Denny introduced me to was Bill Smith,” recalled Richard Snyder, President of Snyder Communications. “Both started their careers in Norwich the same year, 1949. For Ralph, it was the Norwich Pennysaver, for Bill it was Smith Ford. Through the years Bill was extremely kind and helpful to me and was a driving force in creating many of the institutions that we, who live here, still enjoy today.”
Former Norwich Police Chief Joseph Angelino recalled some experiences he had with Smith.
“He was a true philanthropist,” said Angelino. “Not only in the Norwich area, but all up and down the east coast. Mr Smith took a great interest in the building of the Norwich Police station in 1999-2000 and would often call me to discuss the project. It always surprised me when I would receive a hand written note or an out of town newspaper clipping in the mail from Mr. Smith. He would see or read about other policing methods in his travels and send them to me with his thoughts on the topic."
Smith was a founding member of the Norwich Lost Pond Club and the Game Creek Club in Vail. He served on many boards throughout his life, all of which focused on helping his local communities. He was a founder of the Greater Norwich Foundation; president and director of the Norwich United Way and the Norwich Chamber of Commerce; chairman of the 1950s Campaign for Chenango Memorial Hospital; and president, director and chairman of the Capital Campaign for the Norwich YMCA. Smith served as director of the Central New York Civilian Defense Transportation System; was a trustee, vice president, and treasurer of Glimmerglass Opera and Head of the Lake (Otsego Golf Club) in Cooperstown. He is a Regent Emeritus of LeMoyne College and was a trustee of the SUNY Morrisville State College Foundation. Smith also volunteered his time for Union College, Hamilton College, the New Hampton School
(NH), the Vail Valley Medical Center (CO), St. Paul’s and St. Bartholomew’s churches in Norwich, the American Legion, and The Boy Scouts of America,
“I have vivid memories from my teen years when Mr. Smith would bring to Norwich Indy 500 race cars and some of the drivers after the race,” recalled Angelino. “The race cars would be on display in the show room on East Main St., and parked behind the dealership was a huge motor home painted in Team McLaren racing colors.”
Smith was known by many as not only a business man but also a race car driver.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Smith won numerous Formula Junior national and regional events with Rev-Em Racing. He gave up racing for businesses associated with the automobile industry. Bill was also a director of Team McLaren, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, Ltd. and Mayer Motor Racing; chairman and founder of McLaren Engines, Inc. in Livonia, MI; president of McLaren North America, Inc; and co-chairman of ASCMcLaren. He was a founding member of CART (Championship Automobile Racing Teams), and Chairman of APG Hewitt Hose USA. During this time Team McLaren won five Can-Am Championships, two Indianapolis 500s, and two Formula One World Championships, while McLaren North America’s partnership with BMW scored numerous IMSA victories.
Smith’s favorite pastimes were skiing, motor racing, boating, traveling, farming, pyrotechnics and socializing. He loved spending hours on his tractor and bulldozer, creating ponds
and sculpting the landscape of his farm, all while battling to a draw with the local beaver population. He spent more than fifty winters in Vail with his family, and prior to that many years in Stowe, VT and Kitzbühel, Austria, where he was the third American to win the Austrian Golden Snow Star in 1964.
Roger Penske of the Penske Corporation, Team Penske, and man who owns the most victories in the Indianapolis 500 spoke with The Evening Sun Thursday night to discuss his friend, Mr. Smith. “I have been a friend of Bill Smith for more than 50 years. Bill was a leader, a competitor, a man of high integrity. His most important assets in life were his family and friends. We will miss him dearly.”
Penske then went into further detail with regard to some one his favorite memories with Smith. “We’ve gone skiing in Vail so many times, I can’t even count,” said Penske. “But it is more than that, it has always been more than that. He was always the glass half full type of person, always so positive.”
Penske reminisced about the early days of Smith in the automobile business and his relationship with Henry Ford II.
“There wasn’t a place all around the world Bill hadn’t been, I don’t think,” said Penske about Smith’s love of travel.
“And compassionate,” said Penske. “He was ever so compassionate. He reached out to the young children and kids, and he really knew how to talk to them. He understood.”
Penske said, “No matter how successful Bill became, he was never too big to get down to the lowest level. He never had a bad word to say about anyone.”
Emotionally, Penske recalled his last visit with Smith, one day prior to his passing, when he and his wife Kathy were able to make a trip.
“I was able to put my hand into his,” said Penske. “We talked about the old times. We talked about the future. He was a realist. He told me stories about his farm. His biggest assets, out of everything, are his family and friends.”
“The last words he said to me were, ‘Take care of my wife,’ and I will,” said Penske.
The family will be receiving those who wish to pay their respects at St. Bartholomew’s Church’s Monsignor Festa Parish Center, Norwich, NY on Monday, August 29 from 2-3:30 p.m. There will also be calling hours on Tuesday, August 30 from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Fenimore House in Cooperstown, NY followed by a celebration of his life at 7 p.m.