He was one of the giants of Virginia politics in the 20th century, and on Tuesday, much of Virginia’s political royalty gathered in Winchester to lay former Del. Alson H. “Al” Smith Jr. to rest.
Smith, 80, was part of the Democratic political leadership which ruled both houses of the General Assembly until the mid-1990s. Smith died Sunday at Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury Hospital in Winchester.
It was estimated that Smith raised more than $60 million for nonprofits and the Democratic party in his lifetime, and on Tuesday many politicians — regardless of political affiliation — were there to pay their respects.
Pallbearers at the services included U.S. Sen. John Warner (R), former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (D), former Virginia Governors Mark R. Warner (D), Charles S. Robb (D) and Gerald L. Baliles (D), and former state Sen. Russell Potts (R).
Smith represented parts of Northern Virginia in the House of Delegates for 20 years, from 1974 to 1994, which spanned the terms of three consecutive Democratic governors. He was chair of the House Democratic Caucus for a decade and was a major political fund raiser for the Democratic party, attending nearly every quadriennial state and national convention since 1976.
A native of Frederick County, Smith was born on Jan. 6, 1928. He was a track and football star at Handley High School, and after graduating in 1947, served in the U.S. Army in Newfoundland during the Korean War.
Upon returning to the Winchester area, he married the former Margaret Cage Mathews and eventually became a successful franchisee of about 100 Tastee-Freez restaurants.
Smith entered state politics in 1974, succeeding in office for two decades with his businessmans acumen, fundraising charm and devotion to constituent needs. He represented the 17th District in 1974, which included Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, and Warren counties, as well as Winchester.
Democrats held the majority during most of Smiths tenure, and a long succession of governors and U.S. senators — regardless of political affiliation — sought him out for political advice. Smith was also an early backer and district chair of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s succesful presidential runs. He raised millions for state and presidential elections, including Charles Robbs successful 1979 bid for governor as well as his U.S. Senate campaigns in 1988 and 1994.
Smith served on the House Appropriations Committee and chaired one of its main subcommittees, Capital Outlay. He also served as chairman of the Mining and General Resources Committee and was on the Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee.
Smith was known in Richmond and in his home district as a “go to politician.” If a constituent or a local government official needed help getting something done in the state’s sprawling bureaucracy, Smith was often first to offer help. “He was a larger than life public servant who always placed Virginia above politics,” former Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, told The Winchester Star. “He was a kind, decent, generous man.”
Smith was also a major fundraiser and past chairman of the board of trustees at Shenandoah University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate of humanities. In 1992, the university named its newly constructed library after Smith. Also named for him are the Alson H. Smith Jr. Fruit Research Lab in Frederick County and the Alson H. Smith Jr. Technology Center at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown.
Smith officially retired from politics in 1994, but continued to serve on various state and local boards and commissions, and governors and current legislators often leaned on him for advice.
“Al Smith was a dedicated legislator who used his understanding of business to help the Commonwealth with community colleges and other public building projects,” said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in a statement.
Surviving his wife of 55 years, Margaret, is a son, Alson H. “Skip” Smith III. Another son, David M. Smith, died in a plane crash in 1999.