Auto dealer Phil Smart, beloved for volunteer work, dies at 93
Seattle has a lost a volunteer, philanthropist and beloved community leader. Phil Smart Sr., longtime owner of Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz, died Friday at age 93.
Seattle Times staff reporters
A stalwart of Seattle civic life — car dealer, volunteer and philanthropist Phil Smart Sr. — has died.
Although he was widely known for Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz on Pike Street, Mr. Smart’s biggest imprint may have come from his volunteer work for causes that included Seattle Children’s hospital, the Seattle Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts of America.
Mr. Smart died Friday of natural causes at Virginia Mason Hospital, said his son, Phil Smart Jr. He was 93.
Mr. Smart volunteered at Children’s hospital for 46 years, visiting children in the rehabilitation unit on Wednesday nights and for 26 years showing up on Christmas mornings as “the real Santa Claus.”
Aileen Kelly, executive director of the Children’s Hospital Guild Association, a network of fundraising volunteers, said Mr. Smart “has helped us raise millions of dollars. ”
“He was such an amazing storyteller,” Kelly said. “His stories about his ‘teachers’ — that’s what he called the patients — touched thousands.”
Children’s “was just a part of him, and we were the lucky ones,” she said, although adding that if you were to ask him, Mr. Smart would have said he was the one who was fortunate.
“He was a tremendous ambassador and champion for this hospital, which he called the ‘Miracle House.’ He embodied everything that is good about it.”
Last year he organized a Rotary event at which the Distinguished Service Cross was presented to the family of Sgt. Gerald M. Henderson, who died in the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, but whose award had been lost in government paperwork.
“Mission accomplished,” he told a gathering at The Westin Seattle.
Mr. Smart, who served in North Africa under Gen. George Patton in World War II, said that every morning at work he saluted a portrait of Patton that hung in his office. He served for more than 21 years in the Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of colonel.
“Phil Smart was the kind of community leader who inspired, and was a model to a generation, on what it really meant to believe in and support your community,” said Kate Joncas, CEO and president of the Downtown Seattle Association.
He is survived by his wife of 71 years, Helen, and by Phil Smart Jr., daughter Dianne Brady, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
At the Seattle Rotary Club, “Phil was one of our best presidents because he always put service at the forefront of whatever he did and stood for,” the club’s executive director, Valerie Elliott, said in a 2009 interview.
Mr. Smart was an Eagle Scout — and the father of an Eagle Scout — and was involved in Boy Scouts for 80 years, once saying that scouting “has wiggled itself in all parts of my life.”
In 2003, the Chief Seattle Council of the Boy Scouts dedicated the Phil Smart Sr. Urban Scouting Center. Mr. Smart was a major contributor to the campaign that helped the council raise $5 million for the project.
“One of the things I admired about him the most was the fact that he was authentic,” said Smart Jr., who worked with his father in the car business.
“He was many, many things to the different groups that he associated himself with, but when he was all alone with his family, he was the very same person that these people came to know, love and appreciate in the community.”
Mr. Smart grew up in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, attending Roosevelt High School and the University of Washington.
In 1941 he enlisted in the Army, intending to return to the UW later, but that plan was interrupted by Pearl Harbor and World War II.
Mark Dederer had a personal and professional relationship with Mr. Smart over the years. Dederer is the vice president of community relations for Wells Fargo Bank in Washington, responsible for the bank’s philanthropic work in the state, and had “run across Phil many times.”
But his real connection came at Children’s, where Mr. Smart was a regular visitor to Dederer’s ailing young son, Eric.
Dederer said Mr. Smart had been friends with his father and grandfather, and became a regular visitor as Eric struggled with a rare disorder that hospitalized him several times beginning in 1996.
Once, Dederer said, he ran into Mr. Smart and his wife leaving the hospital one night as he was walking in the front door after Eric had been admitted. Mr. Smart told his wife he needed a few minutes to go upstairs to visit the boy.
In July 2002, days before Eric died, Dederer said, Mr. Smart pulled him aside at the hospital. He said Mr. Smart always called him “Dad.”
“He said, ‘Dad, we both know what’s going to happen,’ ” Dederer recalled. “He said, ‘And when it does, I want you to call me,’ and he gave me his cellphone number.”
Mr. Smart flew to Eastern Washington to speak at Eric’s funeral, Dederer said, “and let me tell you, he touched a lot of people.”
Mr. Smart became sales manager of a new Mercedes-Benz dealership on Pike Street in 1959 and bought the business in 1965 with several co-workers. He sold the business in December 2011, but continued to work there several times a week, said General Manager Jason Graham.
The business, now owned by Al Monjazeb and known as Mercedes-Benz of Seattle, will move from Pike Street to Airport Way South in July.
Mr. Smart spoke often to employees about the “Rule of Eight” for managing the hours in their lives, Graham said: “Eight were for work, eight were for rest, and eight were for helping others.”
Smart Jr. said his father gave talks “about the ‘third eight’ on probably over 100 different occasions and to thousands of people.”
This story includes material from Seattle Times archives.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org