William A. Smith, (1899–1991) was a philanthropist and railroad builder. Born in El Paso, he enlisted in the United States Army at age 15 where he served under General Pershing in Mexico during World War I. Upon returning to civilian life, he attended The University of Texas for one year and then entered the employment of the Southern Pacific Railroad, beginning as a chainman but eventually serving as office engineer on construction in Mexico. In 1923, he married Madeline Welder, a member of an early pioneer family from Victoria, Texas. That same year, he organized the William A. Smith Construction Company in Texas. He later organized companies of the same name in Missouri and California. These companies specialized in construction of railroads worldwide. It was said that at one time Mr. Smith’s companies had the distinction of having laid more tracks than any other company in the world.
Mr. Smith was a client of C. M. “Mac” McGee, who had established an accounting practice in Houston after serving in World War II. Mr. McGee, a native of Lockhart, Texas, graduated from The University of Texas in 1935 with a B.B.A. degree. He was 24. Completing his education took longer than usual because times were difficult in those days and he was not able to go straight through after high school. When he was able to attend, he relied heavily on two resources to help him through: student loans through the university and part-time work. One of his jobs was working with The University of Texas Archives, now a part of the Briscoe Center for American History’s collections.
The Smiths did not have any children but devoted a great deal of their efforts toward community enterprises, bestowing substantial benefits on hospitals, museums, universities, and other charitable organizations. After Mrs. Smith died in 1964, Mr. Smith continued these charitable efforts until his death in 1991. At all times he was ably assisted in his philanthropic and business efforts by Mac McGee.
Mr. Smith established the William A. and Madeline Welder Smith Foundation through his will in order to continue supporting the many people, places, and causes he and his wife had cared about. The will appointed Mr. McGee as one of two trustees of the Smith Foundation, a role in which he served from the foundation’s inception until his death in May 2001. Mr. Smith’s bequest gave the two trustees latitude in determining how best to use the foundation’s assets. While considering how to make an impact with the foundation’s gifts while supporting causes the Smith’s had cared about, Mr. McGee remembered his experiences at The University of Texas during the 1930’s. He decided that he would like to help today’s university students in the same manner in which he was assisted by establishing or adding to the university’s student loan funds and by providing other funds in support of work-study programs.
Mr. McGee approached the university’s development office with a proposal to establish endowments in these areas. To his surprise, the response regarding loan funds was not what he was expecting. Times had changed as had the needs of both the students and the university since Mr. McGee had attended. By the early 1990s, because of the availability of federally-backed loan programs for higher education since the 1970’s, ample funds had become available for student borrowing outside of the university. The university’s emphasis was now focused on helping keep student debt loads down. The development officer assisting Mr. McGee asked whether it would be acceptable for the university to present some alternate proposals for application of Smith Foundation funds. Mr. McGee said, “Yes.” After further conversation to learn more about Mr. McGee’s and the foundation’s interests in order to determine which programs at the university might be of greatest interest, the development officer was soon ready to present several options for Mr. McGee’s consideration. By listening to Mr. McGee as he talked about his and the foundation’s interests, she discovered that history, genealogy, and historical research were themes that repeated themselves. Proposals benefitting the university’s Department of History and the Center for American History (named for Governor Dolph Briscoe in 2009), were presented to Mr. McGee.
Recalling his time as a student working his way through college in the university archives, the opportunity to now provide similar support to the Center for American History that would benefit students needing help like he had needed resonated deeply with Mr. McGee. Through his sponsorship, the Smith Foundation made an initial grant to the university’s Center for American History to provide stipends for students to visit the center to conduct research for theses and dissertations as well as fund student internships in archival enterprises and historical research at the center. Three-fourths of this initial grant was placed in an endowment to generate continued support for the travel award. The balance was made available on a current basis to support internships at the center for students to have an opportunity to work for a stipend in their chosen field, to develop professional skills, and to build a network of professional colleagues that will assist the student as they launch their career upon graduation. Mr. McGee was so pleased with how closely these programs met his interests that he subsequently sponsored additional Smith Foundation grants for the benefit of the Center for American History. Most of the earlier grants were provided in the same manner as the original grant, part to endowment and part to current expenses. Over time, later grants sponsored by Mr. McGee went entirely to current needs. Since Mr. McGee’s death, the Smith Foundation has continued making grants for current use to the Center for American History in support of the internship program.
Through the relationship he developed with the center over the years, Mr. McGee learned more about the collections and was pleased to assist his wife, Virginia Munson McGee who descended from one of Austin’s Old 300, with donating a collection of historical family letters to the center. These letters were written to Mrs. McGee’s ancestor by a lady in Baltimore who had become acquainted with him while he was held as a prisoner of war there during the Civil War.
The Smith Travel Award endowment and recurring current-use gifts resulted from a combination of the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mr. McGee’s appreciation for the assistance that the university provided for him as an undergraduate, and the efforts of a thoughtful Texas Development officer committed to identifying a meaningful gift opportunity on campus consistent with Mr. McGee’s and the foundation’s interests.
Today, the Smith Foundation continues to nurture the relationship with the center begun by Mr. McGee by providing a representative to serve on the Briscoe Center’s Advisory Council.