At age 95, Bee Smith still stands ramrod straight, all 6 feet, 5 inches of him, works out with a personal trainer at least twice a week and remains a regular in a high-spirited, low-stakes floating monthly poker game. His memory is absolutely spot on, going all the way back to his very first recollection as a young boy.
That would be the return of Charles Lindbergh to the United States after his historic solo transatlantic 1927 flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. Smith was there on the shores of the Potomac River that day when Lindbergh’s ship back to the U.S. docked in Washington, where he got off and headed for the White House.
“It proves a point,” Smith said, sitting in a comfortable room at his Middleburg home recently. “I really am as old as I am.”
A few weeks ago, Smith celebrated that 95th birthday, and he clearly shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Bee is a childhood nickname and his life story offers a fascinating tale of a man who was born in 1921 in Alexandria, Virginia and went on to become a highly successful businessman, banker and real estate entrepreneur. Smith played significant roles in helping develop Tysons Corner and the Landmark shopping center in Alexandria, as well as obtaining his home town’s first cable television license in the medium’s infancy in 1980.
“I was a dabbler,” Smith said with genuine modesty. “And I enjoyed all of it.”
Smith attended three different high schools—Alexandria High, then George Washington when the first school closed, and finally Episcopal. Though he never graduated from Episcopal, he had enough credits to get into Washington & Lee. But his education there was soon interrupted by World War II, and he spent 38 months in the Army Air Corps.
Smith initially applied to officer candidate school but was told because he weighed only 142 pounds spread thinly over his 6-5 frame, he couldn’t qualify. Still, he made a significant contribution to the war effort, training pilots and bombardiers at bases around the country on how to maneuver their planes into position for the most effective bombing runs.
“Five different times I was going to go overseas,” he said. “But every time I got ready to go, they realized if I went, no one else on the base could do what I’d been doing, so I had to stay.”
In 1944, the Soviet Union gave the U.S. permission to locate a base in Siberia, the better to bomb Japan from the north. Smith and his fellow airmen trained in Casper, Wyoming over that winter to simulate similar frigid conditions, but they never made it to Russia.
“The Battle of the Bulge hit,” Smith said, “and our whole unit was broken up. The military was pretty much focused on Europe at that point.”
After the war, Smith and his wife of 42 years, Babette, moved back to Alexandria. He eventually graduated from George Washington, told his attorney father he wanted no part of going to law school and moved to Colorado before returning to Virginia in 1954 to go into the insurance business.
Eventually, he and some doctors at Alexandria Hospital began investing in apartments before he got into the banking business and various other projects, including helping to establish retirement facilities like the Goodwin House and Westminster Canterbury for older residents.
One day in 1980, then Virginia Gov. John Dalton called and asked him if he would serve on the board at Norfolk State University. “I told him I’d never even heard of the school,” Smith said. “But I called him back and said ‘I’ll take it.’ I was on the board for ten years, and it’s the most fun I ever had.
“I was the white chairman, the rector, of a historically back college,” he said. “The school needed help. We got a new president, Harrison Wilson, and we’re still great friends. I eventually got him five-year contract, which had never been done before. We got theNorfolk and Southern Railroad to give them property that doubled the size of the school, and they went up to 8,000 students.”
There is a dormitory on campus named for Smith, and he still pays close attention to the college. He also has had countless other pursuits. He’s traveled to 104 different countries, almost always as a tourist, including a memorable visit to Antarctica “where we sort of got penguined out.” He has a prized collection of antique maps, one going back to 1540, and still follows the Redskins and checks the Nationals box scores, as well.
After a divorce, and six years as a bachelor, Smith remarried again at the age of 72 to his wife, Regina. He finally stopped working full-time at age 80 when he closed his Alexandria office building, and they’ve lived in Middleburg for the last 23 years.
His advice to a younger generation?
“Maintain your values,” he said. “And enjoy yourself. I love life. That’s why I’m still hanging on to it.