Phil Smart started selling automobiles in 1952 in Seattle and built the area's first and most-successful Mercedes-Benz dealership. He gave much of his time and effort to community service, particularly to causes benefiting children. He volunteered at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center for more than 40 years and was Santa there for 26 Christmases. Starting in 1991, he addressed more than 65,000 people with his thoughts on community service and the lessons he had learned from sick and dying children. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Phil Smart First Citizen of 1994 for his service to others and for his advocacy of volunteerism.
Phil Smart grew up in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood and earned money selling the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal door to door for five cents a copy. He also helped out at his aunt's refreshment stand in Lincoln Park in West Seattle. As he got older, he piled pipes at a plumbing supply company. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Smart enrolled at the University of Washington, but World War II intervened.
His Reserve Officer Training Corps classes helped him command a truck company in North Africa and Italy. He left the service as a major and with the Soldier's Medal for rescuing the crewman of a burning bomber just before it exploded. He later joined the Air Force Reserve. He retired as a colonel.
After the war, Smart sold appliances and dry cleaning supplies, after which, in 1952, he got into car sales. He sold Chevrolets until the dealership on Capitol Hill branched out to include Mercedes-Benz.
In 1959, Smart and another employee bought out the owner with Smart holding 52 percent of the business. He voted his shares in favor of naming the new company Phil Smart, Inc. For 25 years, he was the only Mercedes-Benz dealer in the Seattle area. Despite the firm's near-monopoly on Mercedes-Benz sales, a hallmark of Phil Smart, Inc. was customer service.
For the Community
Phil Smart was an Eagle Scout and found time to be the neighborhood Scoutmaster for 14 years. He also served in other Scouting roles, including district chairman. The Boy Scouts of America awarded him the Silver Beaver for volunteer service and the Scouts' Distinguished Eagle Award. The Urban Scouting Center in Seattle is named for him. Smart took his Scout training to heart and became active in a variety of civic activities, particularly those benefiting children.
He took a leadership role in the Seattle Rotary (one of the world's largest chapters) and became president in 1989. He encouraged his fellow Rotarians to give their time to the community and said, "I'm not everyone, but I am someone. I can't do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do." He spoke of how most people need to work for eight hours and sleep for eight hours. That leaves the eight hours to do something for the community and it is this "third eight" that defines the quality of people's lives (Puget Sound Business Journal).
Working with Children
Smart's role as a volunteer with Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center (formerly Children's Orthopedic Hospital) started in 1961. Children's relied heavily on women volunteers to help out in the hospital during the labor shortage of World War II. Volunteers became a mainstay of the hospital workforce, cutting expenses and freeing up professionals to deliver medical care. Phil Smart was recruited as the first male volunteer to work with children in the wards.
By long tradition, Christmas is a special time of year at Children's. Many patients were chronically ill and spent months in the hospital. Trustees, staff, and volunteers wanted to make children who had to spend the holidays in bed and away from their families feel less lonely. Civic groups supplied entertainments during the season and Santa Claus visited every bed with gifts and spent time with every child.
In 1972, Smart donned the Santa suit, a happy task he undertook for 26 Christmases. Through the year, he continued to report to the hospital every week to work with, and seek inspiration from, critically ill and sometimes terminally ill young patients.
When Smart first volunteered at Children's, he was advised to not get emotionally involved with the patients. Smart proceeded to personally connect with his young friends and met some remarkable young people over the years. In 2001, Smart wrote Angels Among Us, a memoir of his 40 years of work at Children's and stories of the brave children he met there. The book sold 5,000 copies and went into a second printing. A sequel, The Real Angels Among Us came out in 2004 and also sold well. All the profits from the sales of books went to the hospital to pay for medical care given to children without health insurance.
The Ultimate Volunteer
Hospital trustee and fellow volunteer Sharon Friel said of Smart, "He's the ultimate volunteer -- reliable, warm, gentle, compassionate, loving. He truly cares about the dignity of the patients. He exemplifies the heart of the hospital" (Puget Sound Business Journal).
In naming Phil Smart First Citizen of 1994, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors stated, "Phil is a true believer that life is not measured by duration, but by donation. Through his service to others and advocacy of volunteerism, Phil truly has found the ways to give himself away" (SKCAR Website).
Phil Smart Sr. died in February 2013 at the age of 93.