Good Morning—Monday is here again, another work week is here again, and the 3DB, like you, is ready for the challenge. This week I want to look back at Dell Smith’s life. He was hated by many, loved by many, and a man of boundless dreams. I was in McMinnville this summer and that which he did with the museum there, and the people there now that continue the fight to keep the museum open, is indeed a chapter in aviation that we all need to protect.
Smith, whose for-profit companies stalled out in recent years, but whose non-profit museums continue to soar, was a McMinnville enigma.
Known as “Del Smith” to most people when they were talking about him, and as “Mr. Smith” to employees and those talking to him, he was a tough businessman with a panoramic vision. He led by example.
He always had a soft heart for those in need, be they young people who yearned for someone to believe in them, fellow miliary veterans, or residents of Third World countries desperate for humanitarian aid. Time and again, he made contributions to aviation or education, to his church or his community. And he praised company personnel, often referring to them as “family.”
Yet he cut staff mercilessly, sometimes on what seemed like a whim. He was legendary for letting bills go unpaid, stiffing the lowly and lofty alike. And he paid his pilots less than any other pilots in the industry, year after year.
As a result, he was both revered and reviled, respected and feared, ridiculed and acclaimed.
Smith died Friday, Nov. 7, at the age 84. His death followed a period of sharply declining health.
Viewing is scheduled for noon to 7 p.m. on both Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 12-13, at Macy & Son Funeral Directors, 135 N.E. Evans St. in McMinnville. A public gathering and memorial service are scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.
“I guess I want to be remembered as a spirited organizer with a good work ethic,” Smith told the News-Register in an extended interview in 1999.
Among his greatest accomplishments, he listed things his company had done: reforesting Oregon slopes by scattering seeds from a helicopter; eradicating the black fly in Africa; helping with efforts to end starvation in Pakistan; putting out 700 oil fires in Kuwait; finishing the Alaska pipeline ahead of schedule; eradicating heroin poppies in Mexico.
“If I had 10 lives, I’d do a lot more — real estate, or it would’ve been fun to have an ocean fleet,” he said.
After serving as a paratrooper and Air Force officer, Smith learned to fly helicopters in 1955. Rotary technology was still new then, but he predicted the craft’s potential for commercial use.
He co-founded a helicopter business in 1960, at the age of 30. He named the company “Evergreen” because it symbolized the Northwest and fit with the logging industry, a major client. He said he later learned that Asians associate the world “evergreen” with peace and prosperity — a bonus.
Seeking a coveted airline operating certificate, Smith in 1975 acquired the tiny Johnson Flying Service of Montana, merged it with Intermountain Airlines, and acquired a large aircraft maintenance and storage facility in Arizona. Those transactions allegedly drew Evergreen into clandestine business with the Central Intelligence Agency, a charge denied by Smith when it became the subject of local, regional and national media reports.
Smith, now operating Evergreen International Airlines, moved from the pilot’s seat to the CEO’s desk. In the 1980s, he founded the independent Valley Community Bank, now a branch of Columbia River Bank.
“Leadership by example is the best form,” he said in that 1999 interview, one of the few he ever granted.
Queried in conjunction with the story growing out of that interview, employees told the News-Register they admired Smith’s work ethic, with high expectations, little tolerance for error and no tolerance at all for slacking off. Working for the company could be stressful, they said, but also rewarding, featuring plenty of opportunities for learning and growth.
“I believe in hard work and honesty,” Smith said. “Life is a gift. You owe God your best performance.”
Over five decades, he built McMinnville-based Evergreen International Aviation into the most diversified aviation corporation in the world, one that pioneered uses for a variety of aircraft and developed equipment and protocols that are now industry standards. The company worked with military and governmental entities, as well as commercial and nonprofit ones.
Allegations about covert dealings with the CIA were a major irritant for Smith.
“It bothers the hell out of me that people have the wrong impression,” he said, addressing rumors about the nature of some of his company’s government contracts. “We’ve been helping. We’ve done our patriotic duty, whether it’s fighting the dope battle or helping with an operation to end blindness. We just strive to work hard and be honest.”
People joked, some bitterly, that Smith did whatever he wanted, laws, regulations, contracts and critics be damned. But many admired him for dreaming bigger than others dared and often turning those dreams into reality.
He was a taskmaster, a demanding boss who called his staff together every morning at 7 and expected them to be as dedicated as he was. Yet he downplayed his dominating, larger-than-life role, calling himself just “one of the team.”
“Evergreen works as a family and a team,” he told the News-Register when he received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in the late ‘90s.
The award, given to one person each year, honors aviation achievements, leadership, integrity and humanitarianism.
“It’s not just an honor for me. It needs to be shared by many,” he said, adding one of his signature quotes: “Nobody’s as smart as everybody.”
Yet he took his leadership role seriously, making sure to know employees personally and visit them as often as he could.
In 1999, for instance, he spent more than one-third of the year on the road — flying his Lear jet to his Arizona maintenance base just for the day sometimes, and making dozens of longer trips to New York, Washington, D.C., Hong Kong, and cities in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
People from all those places came to see him as well. There’s no denying that Smith helped make McMinnville an international destination, first with his aviation companies, which worked all over the world, and later with his air and space museums.
“He helped put us on the ‘map’ in a very positive way,” said Ed Gormley, who served as McMinnville mayor for 25 years.
Before he became mayor, Gormley filled the seat once held by Smith on the McMinnville City Council. Later, Smith donated most of the trips awarded as the grand prize at the annual Mayor’s Charity Ball, Gormley said.
“I can’t say enough nice things about his generosity. He was generous in so many quiet ways,” Gormley said.
The former mayor also noted how many local jobs were created by Evergreen over the years. “Despite the problems that brought on the closing of the company his handprints and life will be part of McMinnville, Yamhill County and Oregon for decades to come,” he said.
Smith’s companies started to crumble in 2010. Facing major business challenges, Smith began selling off assets, including the helicopter division in a $250 million sale to Erickson Air-Crane, now Erickson Inc., in 2013. Smith told the News-Register he planned to use the money to reinvigorate his air cargo company, Evergreen International Airlines, but the company was $300 million in debt at the time and could not, in the end, be saved.
Smith closed the airline in November of 2013. The parent company and several of its remaining arms declared bankruptcy on New Year’s Eve that year, and in June of this year, a federal judge approved the sale of the company’s remaining assets.
Most of Evergreen’s former corporate headquarters buildings adjacent to the McMinnville Airport now sit empty, with “For Sale” signs out front.
For many years, Smith and his eldest son, the late Michael King Smith, collected historic aircraft and displayed them at company headquarters and flying events.
After their 1991 acquisition of the giant HK-1 Flying Boat — built by Howard Hughes, whom some have compared to Smith — the Smiths made plans for a major museum and educational facility.
Mike Smith died in a car crash in 1995. But Del Smith fulfilled his son’s dream posthumously, opening the Evergreen Air Museum and Michael King Smith Educational Institute in 2001.
The complex now includes the air museum; its twin, a space museum; a 3-D theater; the Wings & Waves Waterpark; a non-denominational chapel; Boy Scout facilities; a walking path; and a flying field for radio-controlled aircraft.
Volunteers, many of them veterans, have helped restore planes and set up exhibits. They act as docents, telling stories about the aircraft and related items in the museums.
The facilities also serve as learning spaces for hundreds of students each year, both visitors and youngsters from McMinnville schools: children who learn about physics and other science topics at special workshops, study wave power in the water park or show off science fair projects; high school students who discover history first hand in living history programs featuring military veterans.
In addition, two McMinnville High School programs are based in the space museum: the SOAR television production class and the Engineering and Aerospace Science Academy.
Smith also provided all sorts of extra opportunities for McMinnville High and Linfield College students, from flying the robotics team to a national competition to letting them experience a live feed from the International Space Station to hiring students for summer jobs or providing internships.
“The programs and opportunities he’s created for learners will be long lasting,” said Maryalice Russell, superintendent of the McMinnville School District.
“We appreciate all he’s done for children, the opportunities to experience science and history and to think of things they might not have thought of,” she said. “He was a great leader for children.”
Linfield President Thomas Hellie added, in a message about Smith, a trustee emeritus, to fellow trustees, “He will be missed.”
Smith was inducted into the Linfield Athletic Hall of Fame in recognition of his decades of financial support for Linfield athletics. He also provided transportation, flying football teams to games in Spokane, Washington, other places and taking baseball teams to Marana, Arizona, for weeklong training camps, said Ad Rutschman, longtime Linfield football and baseball coach.
“He was a very special man,” said Rutschman, who also rode with Evergreen pilots on many recruiting trips. “I never asked him for anything. Everything he did, he initiated and volunteered.”
Smith made many other contributions to the area, helping fill needs such as helping San Martin de Porres Catholic Mission remain open in Dayton. He also made a difference to numerous individuals, changing their lives quietly but profoundly.
Dell Smith never acknowledged any involvement with the CIA; however, the picture above was supposedly taken on board his Lear-35 enroute from Oregon to Arizona where was a part of a dedication ceremony. The article below details the specifics of that ceremony at the hangar he built/owned.
It looms up out of the cactus and tumbleweed like a vast tombstone: a sprawling airplane hangar, 60,000 sq. ft., large enough to house a 747, edging up to the shimmering tarmac of a remote airfield in the Arizona desert, 90 miles southeast of Phoenix. On a wall within is a 4 ft.-by-3 ft. plaque that reads “George Arntzen Doole (1909-1985). Founder, Chief Executive Officer, Board of Directors of Air America Inc., Air Asia Company Limited, Civil Air Transport Company Limited.” The plaque is the only memorial to a man who created and ran what was once one of the largest airlines in the free world. The air- line was known by half a dozen different names, sometimes just as the “Shy Air- line,” and it flew where few tourists want- ed to go. Passengers were often obliged to exit by parachute.
George Doole died as he had lived, in anonymity. When he passed away on March 9, 1985, in Washington at the age of 75, there was no formal obituary in the Washington Post or the New York Times, no memorial service, no flowers. He was quietly buried at a private funeral in Liberty, IL. “No one ever knew where he came from,” says Russell Adams, a re- tired Pan Am vice president who occasionally dined with Doole at the International Club in Washington. “No one knew he was dying. No one even knew he was sick.” Doole preferred it that way. When he entered Washington Hospital Center last year, he told his sisters back in Illinois that he was suffering from a hernia. In fact, he had terminal cancer.
A portly, tastefully dressed man, Doole was at once reserved, even shy, yet highly sociable. The lifelong bachelor often squired wealthy widows to embassy dances in the capital. “George Doole? Oh, he was a perfect gentleman,” recalls one consort, Irene Evans. At the Chevy Chase Club, a Wasp bastion in a well-to-do Maryland suburb, Doole sometimes liked to while away afternoons playing bridge and backgammon. He usually won. “George? Well, he was quite a boy,” chuckles a fellow clubman, retired Rear Admiral Raymond Hunter.
But just what did he do? “I rather thought he was in investments,” says Margaret Wimsatt, who often invited Doole to share Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner with her family. “He was a bit mysterious. I remember at a party at the Chinese embassy, he spent an awful lot of time talking to the Taiwanese ambassador. I asked him why, and he just said, ‘We had a lot to talk about.’ He would sort of peer at you through those thick black- rimmed glasses.” Once, she recalled, she mentioned the name Richard Helms, former director of the CIA. “Do you know him from the Chevy Chase Club?” inquired Wimsatt. “Oh, I know him better than that,” said Doole.
Doole lived in one of the most elegant apartment buildings in Washington, the Westchester, but he never invited any guests there, and he refused to give the management a key. Actually, there was little to see inside. Just a bed, some maps and rows of locked filing cabinets.
To Washington society matrons, Doole seemed the very image of discreet old money. In fact, he grew up
poor, of strict and frugal Lutheran parents, on a 160-acre hog and chicken farm in Liberty. He went to aggie school at the University of Illinois, where he kept to himself. “We were not real buddy-buddy,” says his sister Mildred Nation. “We minded our own business.” Winning a commission in the Army in 1931, Doole learned how to fly airplanes. He later became a pilot for Pan Am, at first flying old Ford Trimotors on the Guatemala-to-Panama run. Along about 1953-no one seems quite sure when Doole made an unusual career move. He went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Officially, the CIA says it has no record that Doole ever worked there, but among old agency hands, he is a legend. Operating out of a small, nondescript office on Connecticut Avenue, he founded and ran a far-flung network of airlines that the agency used to carry out its covert operations all over the world. Owned by a holding company, the Pacific Corp., that was itself a CIA front, Doole’s empire included Air America, Civil Air Transport, Southern Air Transport, Air Asia and dozens of small puddle-jumper lines. Together, at their peak in the mid ’60s, these CIA “proprietaries” added up to an airline that was almost the size of TWA, employing nearly 20,000 people (as many as the CIA itself) and operating some 200 planes. Even the CIA was not sure just how many. Asked by then Deputy Director Helms to account for all the planes in Doole’s regime, a staffer spent three months on the project before confessing that he could never be more than 90% certain. The problem, explained the exasperated staffer, was that Doole was forever leasing planes between his shell corporations and changing their markings and tail numbers.
Traveling around the world, orchestrating his vast air armada, Doole kept his airplanes busy. Under the cover of legitimate freight and charter services, Doole’s airlines supplied a 30,000-man secret army in the mountains of Laos for a ten-year war against the Pathet Lao, dropped scores of agents into Red China, and helped stage an unsuccessful revolt in Indonesia. Not surprisingly, all this flying about aroused curiosity. In 1970 a New York Times reporter asked Doole if Air America had any connection with the CIA. “If ‘someone out there’ is behind all this,” Doole airily replied, “we don’t know about it.”
Doole’s pilots, who flew in and out of tiny jungle fields in abysmal weather and sometimes under enemy fire, were a raffish lot. They referred to the CIA as “the customer,” the ammunition they dropped as “hard rice” and being under heavy fire as “sporty.” Brushes with death were described as “fascinating.” To be “absolutely fascinated” meant scared witless.
Doole would appear from time to time at CIA bases from Vientiane to Panama City, but he stayed aloof from the pilots, many of whom regarded him as a bit of a snob. “I never saw the man without a tie on,” scoffs one. Doole played bridge, flew airplanes and did business deals the same way: slowly and deliberately. “The Chinese liked to negotiate with him,” recalls a former CIA official. “He was polite; he never showed any excitement. But he was tough.”
When the extent of the CIA’s covert operations was revealed by newspaper exposés and congressional hearings in the early ’70s, the agency was forced to dismantle Doole’s huge aerial empire and sell off the various planes and airfields. It was done at a profit; the agency turned over $20 million to the U.S. Treasury. Doole also did well by himself. Though he earned a government salary as a CIA employee, he augmented his income by investing, shrewdly, in the stock market. His estate when he died was worth “several million dollars,” according to a sister.
In 1971 Doole retired from the CIA. Formally, that is. He kept his hand in the aviation business as a director of Evergreen International Aviation, a company that refits and charters airplanes. Though Evergreen bought Intermountain Aviation, one of Doole’s CIA “proprietaries,” in 1975, the company insists that it has had nothing further to do with the agency. Perhaps. But when the dying Shah of Iran wanted to fly from Panama to Egypt in 1980, he flew on a chartered Evergreen DC-8. Doole arranged the charter.
The airfield in the Arizona desert where Evergreen opened its huge hangar last year, the George A. Doole Aviation Center, was once owned by the CIA. Today Evergreen workmen repair and refit commercial airliners from Pan Am, American and Emery Air Freight. It all seems perfectly ordinary and unexceptional, rather like the George Doole who enjoyed playing bridge at the Chevy Chase Club and dancing with wealthy widows. There is probably nothing remarkable about those two unmarked black Chinook helicopters that took off from a far corner of the airfield not long ago and headed south. -By Evan Thomas
Fly safe/be safe and join me again on Friday when we will talk about……….
November 17, 2014