One of Houston’s most generous philanthropists, Lester Smith, 76, died in his sleep at his Memorial area home early Thursday morning after a long battle with various health issues. Known as much for his playful bravura as his deep pockets, Smith and his wife Sue have been widely applauded for their extraordinary multi-million dollar gifts distributed across the Houston community through several decades.
Most recently, the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation announced a jaw-dropping $50 million gift to Texas Children’s Hospital during “The Legacy of Motown” gala at Revention Center. The gala, which the Smith family chaired, raised a record $83,373,119 making it one of the largest single night fundraisers in the state’s history.
At that time, Smith, who made his fortune as a wildcatter in the oil fields of Texas, told PaperCity “I love giving away money. That’s the only reason I work is to make more money to give more money away. And it just seems that the more money I make and the more I give away, the more money I make. I don’t understand it, but I like it.”
It was one of his first official outings after nearly a year of recovering from a double lung transplant. His long-time health issues included three bouts with cancer and heart problems. After the transplant, Smith told the Houston Chronicle, “I have an expiration date. I have a 50 percent chance that my body could reject my lungs in about five years, so I have a clinic working on what can be done when this happens.”
Proving his determination to overcome all odds, Smith early on in his health battles cheekily declared Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as his personal theme song and it was the ring tone on his cell phone.
The man who loved dancing (he and Sue were competitive ballroom dancers) never let an illness get in his way of either having fun or enriching the Houston community through unprecedented philanthropy.
In 2011, Smith penned a part-inspirational, part-wickedly funny biography You Gotta Dance Like No One’s Watching. He said at the time, the book reflects “how life experiences turned into life lessons that made me the person that I am today.”
Friends said that Smith had been unusually weak in recent days, was not feeling well and had visited one of his doctors Wednesday morning.
Among Smith’s giving were a $15 million gift to Houston Hospital District in 2011, a $15 million matching grant to the Holocaust Museum Houston in 2018, a $30 million gift to Baylor College of Medicine in 2007, a $16 million gift to Texas Children’s Hospital in 2013. The Smiths’ most recent gift was a $2.5 million donation in January to Stages Repertory Theatre in honor of his long-time business partner Russell Gordy.
Inside Philanthropy estimates that the Smiths have given more than $150 million to Houston-based organizations.
Smith is survived by his wife Sue Smith, his children Stuart Smith and his wife Limor; daughter Shelly Hendry and her husband Brian, and seven grandchildren. Funeral services, handled through Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, are pending.