The Obit For James Smith

James Lawrence Smith Jr. / Ex-Stadium Authority chair

By Deborah M. Todd
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, November 10, 2011


Considering a life of accomplishments that includes service as a Navy pilot, a professional baseball contract and a key role in building one of the nation's most historic sports venues, it seems natural that James Lawrence Smith Jr.'s bar for personal achievement remained high well into his final years.

"One of his greatest golf highlights came when he shot his age at age 82," reads an excerpt from his obituary.

Mr. Smith, local insurance magnate and former chairman of the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority who oversaw construction of Three Rivers Stadium, died Monday at his Mt. Lebanon home. He was 86.

The son of Nora Bailey Smith and James "Greenfield Jimmy" Smith, a professional baseball player who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and with the Cincinnati Reds championship team, Mr. Smith was groomed for success early on by some of the most successful sports figures of his time. His father and Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney were close friends and promoters for light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Conn, who married Mr. Smith's sister in the 1940s.

Dick McGarvey, a friend who had known Mr. Smith since middle school, said he was so dedicated to shadowing his role models that he once cut classes at Central Catholic High School at age 16 to watch Mr. Conn fight Joe Louis at the Polo Grounds in New York.

"We weren't the best behaved grade-schoolers and high-schoolers there were, but we never got into any serious trouble," he said fondly.

Not to be outshined by his family's accomplishments, Mr. Smith dove into a world of service and sports not long after graduating from Central Catholic in 1942. He enlisted in the Naval Air Corps and was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, before he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946.

The Wharton Scholar and three-time All-American baseball star graduated with a degree in economics in 1950 but decided to follow his father's footsteps into professional sports after being signed by the Chicago White Sox. He played several seasons of AAA baseball with the Texas League's Gladewater Bears.

In 1959 he married Helen Flaherty, a Pan American Airlines stewardess who is the sister of former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty. Mr. Smith then returned to Pittsburgh and kicked off his new career with Aetna Insurance Co. He formed the James L. Smith Insurance Agency in 1960.

The family-operated company has grown into one of the largest insurance agencies in the region.

As Stadium Authority chairman, Mr. Smith remained an advocate of the people's interests during a time when capitulating to the desires of major sports teams would have been an easy option, said his brother-in-law, Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Jim Flaherty.

"He took it very seriously and didn't go to bed with sports companies," said Judge Flaherty. "He fought for the taxpayers."

Despite his legacy of civic and professional triumphs, friends and family said the truest measure of Mr. Smith's success is shown through his personal relationships. Former Alcoa Parking Corp. president Jack Stabile said some of his fondest memories of Mr. Smith were times spent during family trips to their respective family properties in Florida.

Mr. McGarvey said he loved spending time in Florida so much he was known for surprising the entire family with impromptu road trips to the state.

"He would just take his wife and all of the kids to Disney World. He would drive the whole trip in one session while the kids slept in back. He loved doing stuff like that," said Mr. McGarvey.

According to Mr. Flaherty, the simple pleasures gained during family time are the moments Mr. Smith would have pointed out as his greatest triumphs.

"His principal accomplishment was having his children, the way he loved them and devoted himself to them. He never let business stand in the way of attending any of his children's functions," he said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Smith is survived by five sons, James of Upper St. Clair, Dan, Matthew and Patrick, all of Mt. Lebanon, and Robert Smith of Virginia Beach, Va.; and two daughters, Patrice Hart of Mt. Lebanon and Margaret Farrell of Chatham, N.J.; two sisters, Mary Louise Conn of Squirrel Hill and Nora O'Mara of Ocean City, N.J.; one brother, Thomas Smith of Fox Chapel; and 23 grandchildren.

Visitation will be 7 to 9 p.m. today and 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at William Slater II Funeral Service, Scott. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon.