ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Cyrus R. Smith, an aviation pioneer who helped build American Airlines into one of the world's largest air carriers and served as secretary of commerce in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, died Wednesday after a long illness.
Smith, 90, lived in Washington for many years before moving to Annapolis in the mid-1980s.
Except for military service during World War II, Smith, known to many as C. R., was chief executive of the commercial airline from 1934 until President Johnson appointed him secretary of commerce in 1968.
"Mr. C. R. was a giant in an era of aviation pioneers," American Chairman and President Robert L. Crandall said in a statement released at the airline's headquarters in Ft. Worth, Tex. "The nation has lost a great businessman, the industry has lost a great pioneer and we at American have lost a part of our history."
Smith entered the aviation business in the days of open-cockpit biplanes.
He learned to fly just to prove that he could, and then let his license lapse "because to fly good, you've got to fly a lot," he said. "I haven't the time."
During World War II he was selected by Gen. H. H. Arnold, commander of the U.S. Armed Forces, to help organize the Air Transport Command, the military airline active in all theaters. Smith served as a major general and deputy commander of the transport command, which grew into one of the nation's largest military commands by war's end.
He startled executives at American after his return from military service with his habit of typing his own speeches and most of his letters. He also wrote his own advertising copy and stockholder reports.
A 1959 edition of the International Celebrity Register described Smith as a "feet-on-the-desk boss" who was "known to mechanic and vice president alike" as C. R. Dedicated to corporate democracy, Smith once said, "The minute a boy thinks he's an executive, we fire him."
The book notes that Smith switched American to jet aircraft while other airlines were waiting to see if the public would accept planes without propellers. Customers did, filling American's jets to near capacity.
American was the first airline to use sleepers, at a time when most people still considered flight a perilous undertaking. Smith countered that fear with a blunt ad campaign that asked, "Afraid to fly?"
Born in the central Texas town of Minerva on Sept. 9, 1899, Smith grew up in a family of seven children which his father deserted when Smith was 9, the Register said.
He quit school early to work, but returned and earned a degree in business administration at the University of Texas, which later honored him as a distinguished alumnus.
He worked as a bank teller, bookkeeper at a cotton mill, public accountant and junior officer at a public utility company before joining Texas Air Transport, an air mail carrier, as treasurer in 1928.
He became vice president of that company, which was merged into American Airways, the precursor of American Airlines.
Appointed as commerce secretary in 1968, he left government to become a partner in the international banking firm Lazard Freres & Co. in 1969.
Smith was an authority on the history and culture of the West, and he built an extensive collection of paintings by celebrated artists, including Frederick Remington and Charles Russell.
He returned to American in an interim capacity as chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer in September, 1973, serving until February, 1974.