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Richard A. Smith, philanthropist who built the nation’s largest movie theater chain, dies at 95

Mr. Smith's successes were widely credited to his careful leadership and exacting analysis.
Mr. Smith's successes were widely credited to his careful leadership and exacting analysis.Channing Johnson

With nationwide business holdings in movie theaters, book publishing, high-end retail stores, and soft drinks, Richard A. Smith spent years running major public companies, often at the same time, yet his heart was equally — if not more so — in philanthropy.

Under his auspices, the Smith family gave away more than $750 million in his lifetime, his children estimated — including more than $100 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, with donations dating back to its early years.

“I’ve been heavily involved and have contributed to its growth from a small research operation to one of the world’s leading cancer research institutes,” Mr. Smith wrote in 1981. “In many ways this activity has been at least as gratifying as my business career.”

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Mr. Smith, who managed his own heart disease and Type 2 diabetes so carefully that he was still playing golf this spring, was 95 when he died Wednesday in his home in the Brookline part of Chestnut Hill.

“I think he was one of the best citizens Boston ever had,” said Dr. David Nathan, president emeritus of Dana-Farber.

At 36, upon the death of his father, Mr. Smith took over running the successful chain of drive-in movie locations his father had established and the burgeoning theaters in shopping centers that he and his father initiated.

A pioneer of multiscreen theaters in shopping centers, Mr. Smith went on to build and expand the General Cinema Corp. chain, which for years was the nation’s largest.

He diversified his businesses by acquiring the American Beverage Corp. and creating the Sunkist orange drink brand. Subsequently, he purchased the Neiman Marcus chain of retail stores and the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing company.

Mr. Smith also created the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation with his wife, Susan F. Smith, who died in 2016.

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They conducted much of their extensive philanthropy in a low-key manner, making numerous donations to everything from neighborhood health centers to local education projects throughout Greater Boston.

The couple drew greater notice for their $50 million donation in 2006 to Dana-Farber, the largest single gift from an individual in the institute’s history. Research facilities at the institute bear their names, as does the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center at Harvard University, of which they were major benefactors.

“Dick and Susan were not just two of Harvard’s best citizens,” said Lawrence Bacow, Harvard’s president, “they were two of Boston’s best citizens.”

Such philanthropy was possible because of the vast fortune Mr. Smith made through his companies, whose successes were widely credited to his careful leadership and exacting analysis, such as anticipating that families would attend movies during trips to shopping centers.

“Dick Smith is a superb manager,” Sumner Redstone, the Boston-born media mogul who died in August, told the Los Angeles Times in 1985 during an interview about Mr. Smith’s stewardship of General Cinema. “In my opinion, he’s done an excellent job in the building of that company and in its diversification, particularly in the soft-drink business.”

That business acumen extended into his work on numerous boards of Boston institutions, particularly his long association with Dana-Farber.

“No matter who was the president or the chairman of the board, he was the heart and soul of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, there’s no question about it. He was running the institute, actually,” said Nathan, the former Dana-Farber president who was 12 when he met Mr. Smith. Their families had abutting backyards and they played football together as boys.

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Mr. Smith chaired Dana-Farber’s board for more than a decade and “could assess data in almost any sphere and come to a decision about what was the best action,” Nathan recalled.

He added that there was such universal respect for Mr. Smith’s opinions that "if I was to write anything on a statue for him it would be: ‘If he says it’s so — do it.’ "

Born Nov. 1, 1924, Richard Alan Smith was the son of Philip Smith and Marion Fleischman and grew up in Brookline.

Mr. Smith’s father was a pioneer of drive-in movies and ran chains of restaurants and doughnut and pancake houses. Before dying at 62, Philip Smith helped launch the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, now known as the Jimmy Fund.

Graduating from what was then Browne and Nichols School, Mr. Smith was in Harvard’s class of 1946 though he finished early, in 1944, as many did during World War II.

He served stateside in the Navy and then joined the family business, which opened a cinema in a Framingham shopping center in 1950.

“I think this company brought the word cinema back into the language,” Mr. Smith told the Globe in 1975 while speaking about General Cinema, which eventually boasted some 1,200 screens nationally.

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In 1952, he married Susan M. Flax, whose beauty he had first noticed when both were at Schrafft’s in Boston with their respective relatives.

Through decades of funding and promoting research at Dana-Farber, which now houses the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers, Susan Smith “was a very articulate advocate, particularly for women’s cancer programs,” Mr. Smith told the Globe for her obituary. “There’s always politics in a major organization. She waded through it.”

For numerous institutions, Mr. Smith served on boards, provided financial support, or both — among them the Boston Symphony Orchestra and what are now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Joslin Diabetes Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Boston Children’s Hospital.

“If he thought something was worth doing, but finances were standing in the way — that he could solve,” Nathan said. "He’d tell me, ‘Writing a check is easy. Figuring out what the money should be for, that’s the hard part.’ "

A Harvard Corporation fellow, Mr. Smith had served on the Harvard Management Company board, the university’s Board of Overseers, and formerly was chairman of Facing History and Ourselves, a Holocaust education organization.

“Dick cared about causes. I think he loved nothing more than solving problems, whether in business or philanthropic endeavors,” said Seth Klarman, a philanthropist and longtime friend who also had chaired the Facing History board.

Because of the family’s extensive philanthropy in Greater Boston, “there probably isn’t a major institution that, in some way or another, the Smiths haven’t touched,” Klarman added.

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“I used to say about Dick and Susan that the philanthropic gene was not recessive in their families,” Bacow said. “They looked for ways to be helpful and they were.”

Mr. Smith leaves three children, Amy Smith Berylson, Robert A. Smith, and Debra Smith Knez; a sister, Nancy Lurie Marks; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Services will be private for the family.

An enthusiastic sports fan, Mr. Smith often attended a Harvard game and two professional sports contests in a weekend — or three pro games, depending on the season.

He loved to ski and play tennis and golf, and even parred a hole last fall, at 94.

Throughout his life, Mr. Smith sought to find more ways to help those who had few financial resources, those who faced health challenges, and those whose scientific studies would assist others.

“Community work in hospitals, cancer research, cerebral palsy, independent primary and secondary education, and various other welfare and religious organizations as well as some interest in trade management groups have provided a diversity of challenges I hope to expand upon,” he wrote in 1971 for the 25th annual report of his Harvard class.

Upon meeting Mr. Smith as a boy, “what I saw then was kindness and decency,” Nathan recalled.

Former Supreme Court associate justice David Souter “once said that a friend is someone with qualities that you wish you saw in yourself,” Nathan added. “I thought that was one of the wisest things I ever heard and I can tell you, that’s how I felt about Dick Smith. He had qualities I wish I had.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.