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Originally published December 23, 2009 at 6:45 PM | Page modified December 24, 2009 at 8:30 AM

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Mercedes dealer Phil Smart devoted to much more than selling cars

Seattle's longtime Mercedes-Benz dealer, Phil Smart Sr., is now 90, but he has no plans to retire or stop helping others, especially the young patients at Seattle Children's hospital.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Phil Smart Sr.

Age: 90

Birthplace: Seattle

Workweek: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

Morning Ritual: When Phil Smart Sr. walks into his office each morning, he first salutes a portrait of Gen. George S. Patton, then reads a prayer.

Source: Phil Smart Sr.

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Phil Smart Sr. is best known around Seattle for the two large Mercedes-Benz dealerships that carry his name. But through the years, he has played several roles besides car dealer, most notably volunteer and philanthropist.

The 90-year-old Smart dislikes sharing many details about what he calls his "other jobs."

"I don't want to sound like I'm bragging," he said.

Besides, Smart considers that he was led to these pursuits as if by chance — what he calls "Godwinks," a term he found in the book "When God Winks at You" by Squire Rushnell.

Smart had one such life-changing instance in the early 1960s when Peg Emery, a volunteer at Seattle Children's hospital, visited his dealership to sell cards for a hospital fundraiser. When Emery found out Smart had 14 years' experience working with children as a Boy Scout leader, she recruited him to visit kids in the hospital's rehabilitation center.

Smart became the hospital's first male volunteer, and today he is also its longest-serving volunteer.

He visited the rehabilitation center regularly from 1961 until 2007, and dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas morning for 26 years.

"Santa Claus gets asked the toughest questions," said Smart. "The kids asked, 'Santa, am I going to die?'

"You look down into those eyes and say, 'Yes, and so am I. We just don't know when.... ' "

In the 46 years that Smart visited Children's, he met some 6,500 kids that he calls his "teachers."

"I had a one-to-one class on fear, pain and determination that affected my life and the operation of my business," said Smart.

One of those teachers is Kami Sutton, now 21, who was born with a congenital heart defect and has undergone 19 heart surgeries and five back surgeries — the first only hours after she was born.

When Sutton comes out of a surgery, Smart is the first person her mother calls, and he is usually at the hospital "within half an hour," Sutton said.

When Sutton was younger, Smart would tap dance in her hospital room during his post-surgery visits.

Is he any good?

"Oh yeah," Kami said with a laugh.

"He'd always put a smile on my face," she said. "He's the same exact way with other kids, too."

During their visits, Kami and Smart discovered they have the same birthday — Sept. 21 — and they both love car-racing.

Smart, who is fond of reciting statistics, says that over the past 18 years he's spoken on behalf of Children's to 675 organizations in 10 states and four Canadian provinces, and once in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"He has been one of our greatest ambassadors," said Denise Green, the volunteer manager at Children's.

Phil sent me

During new-volunteer orientations, "there is often someone who says Phil sent them to see me," Green said.

Smart also wrote and self-published two books and a DVD about his experiences volunteering at the hospital. Proceeds from sales go to the Phil Smart Sr. Endowment for Rehabilitation Medicine, which now exceeds $1 million.

While president of the Seattle Rotary Club in 1989, Smart encouraged his fellow Rotary members to follow his example by volunteering.

"Phil was one of our best presidents because he always put service at the forefront of whatever he did and stood for," said Valerie Elliott, Seattle Rotary's executive director.

"Everyone can write a check, and they can attend the weekly meetings, but not everyone takes it one step further to go out into the community and do something."

Smart's pro-volunteering message centers on the number eight. He figures people generally work eight hours a day and sleep for another eight.

That leaves them eight more hours to use however they want, and he encourages anyone who'll listen to spend some of those "discretionary hours" helping eight different groups of people: the hurt, the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the young, the old, the illiterate and those addicted to drugs.

Back in 1941, Smart was a sophomore in the University of Washington's ROTC program, and a prime target for the draft.

To avoid it, he volunteered for an Army Air Forces truck unit, expecting he would be able to get out within 12 months.

"But 45 days after I went in, Pearl Harbor (was bombed) and that plan went out the window," said Smart. "We were in it for the rest of the war."

He drove trucks across North Africa, supplying bombs, ammunition and spare parts for aircraft. After six years of active duty, he spent 21 more in the reserve, retiring as a full colonel.

Smart started selling Chevrolets at an Edmonds dealership in 1952, and in 1959 became sales manager of the Mercedes dealership in Seattle, only the third in the country to sell the German brand, he says.

Smart thinks it's ironic he ended up "going into business with the enemy" he'd fought in the war. But he harbored no animosity toward German people, said his wife, Helen, and the dealership was never harassed over its source of cars.

"The car had a good reputation at that time," and anti-German feeling "wasn't too much of a problem, if any," she said.

In 1965 Smart and several of his co-workers bought the dealership, which then employed six people.

The next year, Smart's co-investors wanted out because the dealership "had a bad year," so Smart bought their shares. Later he expanded the business to a second location.

In 1984, Smart's only son, Phil Jr., started to take ownership through a five-year leveraged buyout. Twenty-five years later, the company employs 112 at two locations, but Phil Sr. still has no plans to retire.

Forget retirement

"The 'r-word' — as he refers to it — is not in his dictionary," said Phil Jr. "He's at the store for part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and he reserves Mondays and Fridays for my mother.

"We go to (Phil) in situations when we're looking for experience or a different point of view," Phil Smart Jr. said.

"Senior," as his co-workers call him, still has an office in the front of the Mercedes-Benz dealership on Pike Street. A painting of Army Gen. George Patton, the U.S. commander in the North African campaign, hangs on one of the walls.

These days, Smart has scaled back his visits to Children's, but he still drops off four large bags of Beanie Babies at the hospital's emergency room on the first Wednesday of each month.

"I hope that my life reflects that I'm a believer," said Smart, who attends University Presbyterian Church. "I have a strong faith, and it was burnished by the children at the hospital."

Kaitlin Strohschein: 206-515-5618 or kstrohschein@seattletimes.com

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