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Philanthropist Richard A. Smith, Who Was ‘Deeply Devoted to Harvard,’ Dies at 95

Harvard's campus center is named in part for former Harvard Corporation member Richard A. Smith, who died this month.
Harvard's campus center is named in part for former Harvard Corporation member Richard A. Smith, who died this month. By Amy Y. Li
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

To most at Harvard, Richard A. Smith ’46 is perhaps best known for what former University President Drew G. Faust called his “last gift” to the University: the donation that enabled the redesign and renovation of what is now the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center. But his generosity to Harvard extended well beyond just the hub for student gatherings.

After inheriting his family’s chain of drive-in theatres at the age of 36, Smith built the General Cinema Corporation into the nation’s largest movie theatre chain, in part by incorporating cinemas into shopping centers.

He also purchased the American Beverage Corporation — where he created the brand Sunkist — the chain Neiman Marcus, and a publishing company.

His success, though, was not self-serving.

Over the course of his lifetime, Smith donated over $750 million dollars to organizations in Greater Boston — including over $100 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where he chaired the board of trustees. He also gave multiple gifts to Harvard, including endowed graduate fellowships.

After a lifetime of charity, Smith died last week at his home in Chestnut Hill at the age of 95.

In addition to his financial largess, Smith was generous to Harvard with his time, serving on both governing boards of the University.

From 1989 to 1991, he sat on its second-highest body, the Board of Overseers, before being tapped for the Harvard Corporation, where he was a member until 2000.

He also sat on the board of the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the University’s endowment, and served as a member of the Harvard College Fund Council.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in a statement that Smith loved the University and often viewed it with a “critical eye.”

“Dick Smith loved Harvard, and he always looked on the institution with a critical eye — wondering how it could and should be improved for the people who would care for it after him,” Bacow wrote “The University we know today would not be the same without his efforts and his generosity.”

“Together with his wife Susan, Dick created for all of us a campus center that has truly become the heart of our community, a gathering place that celebrates the best of what we can be when we are together — creative, energized, and optimistic,” he added. “He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered.”

Faust wrote in an email to The Crimson that Smith was “deeply devoted” to the University.

“Dick Smith was deeply devoted to Harvard, serving as a member of the Corporation and supporting an array of endeavors across the University, ranging from scientific research and graduate fellowships to his landmark gift establishing the Smith Center,” Faust wrote.

She added that it was a “privilege” to work with him on the development of the Smith Center. The construction of the Center, from 2013 to 2018, overlapped with her tenure as president, from 2007 to 2018.

“It was my great privilege to work with him on this last gift and to witness his excitement about the potential to transform the heart of the campus community by creating a central space for gatherings and interactions,” she wrote. “His vision and generosity will live on and continue to shape all our lives.”

Smith was predeceased by his wife, but is survived by three children, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Correction: September 18, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Richard Smith lived in Brookline. In fact, he lived in Chestnut Hill in Newton.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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