Remembering C. R. Smith
The First question you may ask is who was C. R. Smith right? Cyrus Rowlett Smith was widely known throughout the world by his initials alone. He was born September 9, 1899 and was from 1934 to 1968 the CEO of American Airlines and again brought back to the airline from 1973 to 1974. He served the as the United States Secretary of Commerce under President Lyndon B. Johnson for a brief period.
C. R. Smith was born in Minerva Texas, and though he never graduated from high school he did attend college at the University of Texas. Upon graduation, Smith accepted a job as an accountant for the accounting firm of Peat Marwick Mitchell.
Smith later held several management positions including a Western clothing store and a other related firms and baby supplies.
Smith’s first aviation position was when he joined Southern Air Transport as a vice president in 1929. Through a series of mergers SAT became part of American Airlines. In 1934, just five years after joining the company C. R. Smith found himself the president of American Airlines.
In business, he was known for an informal, no-nonsense leadership style that stressed close personal relationships with both executives and employees. Jack Naish, president of Convair aircraft said, about C. R. Smith that “you can close a $100 million deal on his word alone.” He most always communicated through personally typed one page memos. Smith knew every American employee by name through the end of his first term as CEO. He had a close relationship with Douglas Aircraft which led American Airlines to become a main operator of the Douglas DC-3 and DC-6: he was also one of the early proponents of what is now LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
In 1934 Airline safety had been a taboo subject at the time, and C. R. Smith was credited with being the first airline manager to discuss it openly with the public. One of Smith’s most famous acts was the publication of an advertisement entitled “Why Dodge This Question: Afraid To Fly?” This opened the door to much public discussion of the matter. Other’s started open forums on air travel safety through the 1940s and 50s including famous national network broadcaster and aviator Arthur Godfrey.
During World War II, Smith left American to become a colonel in the United States Army Air Forces, eventually rising to the rank of major general in the Air Transport Command. Smith worked with people such as, General “Hap” Henry Arnold, Colonel Robert Olds (Father of Robin Olds) and Jackie Cochrane (WASP Fame). Immediately left the AAF in 1945 and returned to his airline.
Following the war, Smith dabbled in international air travel through American Overseas Airlines. He also set up the Admirals Club, the first airline lounge system. In the 1950s, he helped American become the first domestic jet carrier in the US by selecting the Boeing 707 aircraft, which came out months before its rival Douglas DC-8.
Smith was also instrumental in the mandatory retirement age provision for airline pilots or “Age Sixty Rule”. He attempted to enforce a company policy of that at American Airlines in the 1950’s, when younger pilots were getting out of the Air Force and Navy after Korea. He felt that the senior pilots were too highly paid, and replacing them with younger, lower paid ones, would be economically advantageous to the company. The older pilots working for American took him to court and won, but when Eisenhower appointed Elwood R. Quesada as the first administrator of the FAA (the three knew each other from WWII, all were generals), one of Quesada’s first actions was to declare the age sixty retirement as regulatory. There was never any scientific study or even data to back up such an action, but it rather helped out Smith’s plan.
Smith retired and left American in 1968. Upon his retirement and because he was close friends with many prominent Texan politicians, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Jesse Jones and Sam Rayburn he became Secretary of Commerce under President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, he often clashed with the civil service because of his aversion to bureaucracy: on his first day, he objected to having four secretaries and asked that three of them be fired. This culture shock caused him to leave his post early and enter a first retirement.
Mr. Smith returned to American Airlines in 1973 following a period of corporate mismanagement and scandal, although he retired again less than a year later, stating that he was “working in a 747 era with a DC-6 state of mind.”
In 1976 Smith was the recipient of the Tony Jannus Award for his distinguished contributions to commercial aviation. He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The American Airlines C. R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is named after him. Mr. Smith was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1976.
Those who knew C.R. Smith have often said: “Either you loved ‘CR’ or you hated him, there was no in-between, but if you really know him you loved him, but everyone has to respect him”
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