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George A. Smith, 70; L.A. Real Estate Banker and Philanthropist

November 05, 2005|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles real estate banker and philanthropist George A. Smith, 70, chairman and founder of George Smith Partners Inc., died of cancer Thursday at a Tarzana hospital.

Smith was a gregarious, well-known figure in the real estate business who arranged billions of dollars in financing for commercial developments such as office buildings, shopping centers, hotels, apartments and warehouses.

A sought-after speaker for industry events, Smith turned his clout to fundraising after his daughter Rebecca was diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia in 1984. A-T, as it is known, is a degenerative disorder that causes premature aging.

When Smith learned that little research was being done on the rare disease, he helped establish and fund the A-T Medical Research Foundation. His annual benefit lunches filled the largest venues in Los Angeles, and his support helped the foundation raise as much as $5 million, said research physician Richard Gatti, the Rebecca Smith distinguished professor at UCLA's medical school, a position endowed by the foundation.

"George had great respect for collective brainpower," Gatti said. "He felt that if we pulled together we could make progress -- and we certainly did."

Research at UCLA and Tel Aviv University in Israel helped isolate the A-T gene in 1995 and provided the impetus for research at other laboratories around the world. The discovery "really changed the face of genetic research," Gatti said. "It's all because of George. He has had a major impact on science."

Raised in the gritty Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., Smith once told an interviewer that his parents put a lot of pressure on him to succeed. As a boy, he showed extraordinary aptitude for numbers, which came in handy as he obsessed over the stats of his favorite New York ballplayers.

After his family moved to Los Angeles in 1948, he parlayed his numbers skill into an engineering degree at UCLA before moving on to Harvard Business School, where he earned a master's in business administration. He became a real estate banker and formed his own company in 1992.

In September, Smith received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University for his work, financial support and dedication on behalf of fighting A-T.

For six years, Rebecca, now 27, operated Becca's Chic Boutique, a designer resale shop in Woodland Hills that sent its profits to A-T research. She uses a wheelchair but enjoys horseback riding and will return to Moorpark Community College in January to complete degrees in social science and history.

Besides Rebecca, Smith is survived by his wife, Pam, of Hidden Hills; his other children, James Smith, Jill Oaks and Matthew Smith; and two grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 12:30 p.m. Monday at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Smith will be buried privately at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the A-T Medical Research Foundation, c/o Haskell & Davis, 16000 Ventura Blvd., Suite 806, Encino, CA 91436.

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