In a July 2017 "Bend Living Magazine" article (recommended reading) featuring Bill Smith and his wife, Trish, Bend writer Cathy Carroll recounts that Smith's German grandmother, who lived with the family in Denver, had a favorite exhortation she directed at her five young grandchildren: "You must verk."
And verk he did...starting in high school with his own landscaping business and helping at an uncle's trucking company. In 1964, he received an economics degree from the University of Colorado followed by four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He completed his educational ambitions at Stanford Business School, graduating with an MBA in 1970 — the same year he met Trish, his wife of 52 years, and the same year the couple made their way to Bend where Smith began his association with Brooks Resources. Smith rose to position of president at the growing real estate development company, helping shape such iconic projects as Black Butte Ranch, Mt. Bachelor Village and Awbrey Butte. In 1985 he launched William Smith Properties, and the rest is Old Mill District history.
So, yes, hard work, doggedness, entrepreneurial wizardry complemented by a keen understanding of the art of the deal. When the going got tough, and it did, Smith's response was to do more of what he loved, verk even harder, starting his workday at 3:30 am instead of 5:30 am; the light came on early in his office perched above the Deschutes River. In wrangling numbers onto the page, he'd joke that his favorite computer was an Eagle #2 in reference to the wooden pencil in his shirt pocket. Things had to "pencil," had to make financial sense, but it wasn't all about the bottom line. Cost/benefit analyses for his high-wire business initiatives included what you can't put a value on: attention to detail (he'd stop to pick up litter on walks through the Old Mill), an eye for natural beauty (Smith oversaw, in his landscaping of the Old Mill District, Bend's high desert answer to the Butchart Gardens) and lending a helping hand. He served on numbers of boards, supported countless nonprofits, offered ESL classes for employees for whom English wasn't the first language, and, an example of his love of wildlife, went to great trouble to save an active osprey nesting site designated for removal during the construction of Bend's Whitewater Park.
Thanks to Smith's preservation of the historic brick mill powerhouse and its three gravity-defying smokestacks, newcomers to Bend can imagine the muscular, churning timber town Bend used to be. Some of us were here then. Until the early 1990s Bend was an economy based on natural resource harvest. Tourism as an economy was an oxymoron. Anyone in Bend, regardless of their profession, measured their day by the mill's shift whistle. At that time, the section of river above Colorado Avenue was chock-a-block full of logs. When the timber industry collapsed, Smith saw promise in the abandoned mill sites and formed a partnership to acquire the 270 acres. One of the early investors was Emily Bonavia, a former central Oregon resident. She got involved, she says, "...because of Bill Smith's vision and my belief in him. He was a character," she recalls, "and above all he had character. He was a genius and a man of absolute integrity. I am overcome with feelings of deep respect and affection at the news of his passing."
Bill Smith was not one to raze property in haste to make way for development, rather he not only preserved the powerhouse but also painstakingly disassembled the mills to be repurposed. According to Suzanne Johannsen, city council member and the executive director of the Bend Recycling Team at the time, one building was sold in pieces to an Eastern European buyer who reconstructed it to use as a plywood mill. Johannsen, now a financial planner in Bend, learned about this yeoman effort and awarded Bill Smith the Recycler of the Year award.
Bill Smith was not one to raze property in haste to make way for development, rather he not only preserved the powerhouse but also painstakingly disassembled the mills to be repurposed.
"I think it was in 1995. I chose him because of the trouble he took to salvage all he could but also," she laughs, "as a ploy to get him into The Environmental Center where our offices were." Though many of the nonprofits he supported were conservation and preservation oriented, he was not what you'd call an environmentalist. Nevertheless, he displayed the traveling trophy, made by a local artist of bicycle parts, tin cans and other recycled materials, until he passed it on to the following year's winner. "When I met him, I told him I was so happy to meet the person who was making Bend more beautiful. Our town is so much better because of Bill Smith and his family being here." Johannsen says that from that day forward she was dubbed "Greenie" by Smith. Indeed, he had his own social style and vernacular. High five was his favorite form of greeting. Once, in conversation, he explained to me his decades of involvement in large high desert ranching in three words: "I love dirt."
All that Bill Smith contributed to Central Oregon is now in the capable hands of his wife Trish, always by his side as business and philanthropic partner, his children, Matt and Marney, who hold management positions at William Smith Properties, and their five grandchildren. Given Smith's formula of caring, community, ingenuity and verk, there is much for Bend to be thankful for and look forward to.