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Lester and Sue Smith Texas Medical Center Legacy Makers


(L-R) President and CEO Harris Health System, David Lopez; Ginni Mithhoff, Sue and Lester Smith, Dr. Emily Sedwick, and Dr. Kent Osborne at the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation.

(L-R) President and CEO Harris Health System, David Lopez; Ginni Mithhoff, Sue and Lester Smith, Dr. Emily Sedwick, and Dr. Kent Osborne at the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation.

Lester and Sue Smith are a fun-loving, jet-setter, socialite couple and among Houston’s kings and queens of fundraising and philanthropy. Yet, they are also down-to-earth, pranksters, former professional ballroom dancers, art collectors, and very much in love. However, this couple has also seen pain, personal loss, heartache, and cancer, which propelled them to save tens of thousands of lives through their donations of $100 million to Texas Medical Center institutions and beyond.

Throughout the Medical Center there are numerous facilities that bear their name: The Lester and Sue Smith Urology Clinic and The Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center, both at Baylor College of Medicine; The Lester and Sue Smith Clinic at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, scheduled to officially open May 9; and Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic, which includes the Smith Breast Center, Smith Infusion Therapy Clinic, Smith Diagnostic Imaging Department and Smith Oncology Clinic, all having state-of-the-art equipment.

There is also The Lester Smith Cardiovascular Training Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UT Health) and the Gem Vault at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Then there are the scores of endowed chairs to further cancer research for children and adults at Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor, and educational initiatives at Ben Taub Hospital.

The Smiths have also provided more than 20,000 bicycles; support for victims of domestic violence; checks to help single mothers send their children to college; funds to pay the dental and medical expenses for total strangers; and the list goes on and on.

“I am sincerely thankful we are in a position to fund so many organizations and efforts. Also, on a personal level, I am able to provide educational scholarships for my many nieces and nephews who would like to attend college but may not have had the opportunity otherwise,” Sue said.

The Smith Clinic

When Harris County Hospital District Foundation was raising funds for a much-needed new Harris Health System Clinic (previously known as Harris County Hospital District), their fundraising chair, Ginni Mithoff, wife of famed attorney Richard Mithoff, went to see Lester.

“Ginni spoke to me about possibly donating $2 million. I said I’d get back to her,” Lester recalled. “I did my research and saw that cancer patients were often having long waits for appointments at Ben Taub, and I wanted to change that. So, I asked for a meeting. Ginni and a number of staff from (HCHD) Foun­dation were there. I told them $2 million was a lot of money, and I wanted to see if they would accept a different amount. Ginni said any amount would be greatly appreciated.”

The room went silent, waiting for Lester’s number. Then he said to the group, “Put me down for $15 million.” Those at the meeting gasped, and many began to cry in appreciation.

Today, it is not unusual to see Lester in The Smith Clinic talking to patients as they undergo chemotherapy. He’s been there, and he understands what they are going through. Lester is also proud that last year, The Smith Clinic and The Lester and Sue Breast Center combined served more than  87,000 people.

“We understand our gift to HCHD Foundation transformed the lives of so many and it continues to give hope for those who otherwise may not have access to quality care. Everyone deserves good healthcare,” Sue said.

Cancer is a Family Affair

When one person in the family has cancer, the whole family has cancer, and both Sue and Lester are well aware of this fact. When Lester was diagnosed with both bladder and prostate cancer, the couple turned to Baylor College of Medicine to help fight the disease.

Having contemplated death with his cancers, Lester says he has learned to love more deeply, dance much longer and embrace each day surrounded by his loved ones. “Lester’s cancer was traumatic for all of us,” Sue said. “It was a hard road, and there were some bad days. Today, he is cancer free, which we are all very thankful for.”

The couple turned Lester’s personal battle with prostate cancer into a public campaign. In 2004, the Smiths founded the Honor Your Father Campaign for Prostate Cancer Research. This year-long campaign became the largest single fundraising event in the history of   Baylor, raising a record-breaking $6.4 million, including a match by The Lester and Sue Smith Foundation.

After losing her sister to breast cancer, Sue became a strong advocate for funding critical breast cancer research. The Lester and Sue Smith Foundation provided a $30 million challenge grant to Baylor’s Breast Center, which was renamed the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center in their honor. Further­more, the need to continue to support research was underscored when Lester’s former wife and college sweetheart died from the disease.

For the Smiths, philanthropy and fun are the perfect combination and they have raised the bar on Houston’s social scene by chairing, sponsoring, and underwriting dozens of fundraising galas, all exceeding goals. One of Lester’s many aphorisms is “anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” and he and Sue have gained the reputation of doing just that.

Yet, relaxing in their home, the couple could not be more down-to-earth — just regular folks who recognize that they have been blessed. They enjoy spending time with friends and their beloved pets, Coco and Peaches.

Before they married in 1995, Lester and Sue took a few dance lessons in preparation for the wedding. After learning to waltz, they wanted to keep dancing. Within a few years they were spending hours a day with private coaches here and abroad, then competing around the country and touring for weeks. In 2002 and 2003, they won the title of U.S. Grand Senior Latin Champions. And when they built their home, they included a ballroom, complete with a disco ball.

The couple, who met on a diving trip and were first friends for a long time, have much in common. Yet in many ways they are different.

Sue Smith

Sue is a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, growing up as one of the youngest of 10 siblings. “We lived in the country, and there were not any jobs. My father could not afford to send me to college, so I moved to Houston at 17 to find a job,” she recalled.

Sue was raised in a conservative family where men went to work and women stayed home, cared for the house and had babies. If a woman did have a job, it was in the nursing field or secretarial. After arriving in Houston, Sue worked as a secretary. “I think I was somewhat of a rebel, even though I always considered myself shy. I wanted more and have worked hard all my life,” she said.

A soft-spoken, poised, graceful and elegant lady with a beautiful smile, Sue may be shy, but it is not noticeable. She is the perfect host, welcoming and gracious with every guest, including Houston’s local icons, presidents, secretaries of state, politicians, Hollywood notables, neighbors and others, at home or at events.

“Sue knows what true hospitality means,” Lester said. “Hospitality is a real warmth and generosity of spirit that places true value where it should lie — in the dignity of a human being.”

Sue finally obtained her dream of going to college at age 27 when her then-husband encouraged her to pursue a career in something she was passionate about. He made it possible for her to quit working to attend the University of Houston full-time. She studied interior design and, after graduating with honors, had her own successful and award-winning firm for close to 25 years.

“Running my own business gave me a lot of confidence and self-esteem,” Sue said. “Being an artist at heart, I thoroughly enjoyed interior decorating. I enjoy all things creative, especially photography, which is my current focus.”

Lester Smith

Lester, on the other hand, is outspoken, a larger-than-life figure, bald, admits to using “I” excessively, used to wear an earring and was known for living life to the fullest, smoking cigarettes, gambling, drinking and partying. Some called him wild, which fit his chosen career as a wildcatter in the oil and gas industry. Most agree you have to be a little wild and maybe a little crazy to be successful in this high-risk profession.

A wildcatter is a term for someone who drills wells in areas not usually known to be oil fields. Many say Lester has a nose for oil and can smell it beneath the surface, which is their explanation for his overwhelming success throughout the years.

Lester’s grandparents arrived from Russia in the early 1900s, settled in Wharton, Texas with 80 other families from Eastern Europe and established one of the earliest Jewish communities in the area. Growing up in Wharton, a cotton and farming town, Lester was a Boy Scout, went to summer camps with one of his two brothers, and worshiped his oilman father.

On Lester’s 7th birthday, his father took him to his first oil well. “We hopped in the old, red Ford pickup truck with a missing taillight and headed out of town,” Lester recalled. “A few dirt roads later, we were there. My dad loved the smell of the mud, grease, and iron of an oil well and so do I.”

Later that night, his father hit pay dirt — Black Gold. The rig workers were covered in oil and his father had a broad smile. “This was my father’s and my first well, and right then I knew I wanted to be an oilman when I grew up, like my father,” Lester said.

Lester dropped out of the University of Oklahoma, though he was close to graduating, and in 1971 took a salesman position for Lehman Brothers in Houston, concentrating on oil and gas securities. He had already seen the work in the oil fields and this job gave him a bird’s-eye view of the high-rise level.

A few years later he took the leap and went out on his own, when oil was $5 per barrel. It soared to $39 by the early 1980s, so Lester sold all his oil and gas properties at the top of the market in 1982, and retired for eight days.

“I started calling all of the men my father had done business with, making deals. Then I went east, following my father’s advice, and secured endowments with Duke, Harvard, and Yale, who were now entering the oil and gas business.”

In 1986, when Lester was 44, Smith Offshore Exploration was born. Today, Smith Energy Company is still going strong. Lester has numerous offices and drilling activities across Texas, still wildcatting, still hitting pay dirt, even though there is a dry well from time to time. Like his father, he has also seen both boom and bust.

Lessons on Giving Back

As Lester was growing up, his father had been his first example of philanthropy. He just knew the right thing to do, Lester noted. “There was always room for one more at the dinner table, sometimes two or three; a family to support, a child to clothe, a job to be given. To whom much is given, much is expected,” Lester said.

When he was 8, Lester asked his father for 15 cents to buy six tamales from Felipe, a local vendor who was supplementing his weekly job. His father gave him a quarter. “I was thrilled I could buy a dozen… but my father said no. He said Felipe needed the extra cents more than I did. Giving back is something Sue and I enjoy doing today and we are thankful we can,” Lester said.

Sue added, “Lester’s father died of a heart attack when he was 46. Lester was 18 at the time. I think he thought he would die young too, so he lived life to the fullest. At his 50th birthday party, he said he did not think he would live to see 50.”

Today at 71, Lester is healthy, has not touched alcohol in 11 years, and no longer owns an ashtray.

Not long ago, the Smiths attended The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy event, and heard authors read from their published works. After hearing a number of authors read, Lester turned to Sue and said he was going to write a book. And in 2010 he did: You Gotta Dance Like No One’s Watching, by Lester H. Smith with Trish Morille, published by Bright Sky Press, Houston.

The book is a private look at his life, lessons he learned along the way, family stories and those that entertain, draw a tear or a hearty laugh.

Close to the end of the book, the nugget Lester wants most to share, besides noting everyone can do something to help their fellowman, is:

“We can all do just about anything we set our minds on doing. All it takes is lots of dedication, lots of hard work, lots of dusting off and getting back on our feet to give it another try and practice, practice and more practice.

“This works whether you want to dance, become a successful oilman, climb Mt. Everest or play the piano. This works no matter what you seek to achieve in life. Just make up your mind to be the very best that you can be. Why don’t you give it a try? Why don’t you dance like no one’s watching? I promise you, no matter what you seek; you will become a champion, too. Just for trying.”

The Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic. The Smiths donated $15 million to help build the facility.

The Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic. The Smiths donated $15 million to help build the facility.

LESTER-AND-SUE-SMITH-HCHD-SmithClinic_124

(L-R) Henry J.N. Taub II, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Harris County Hospital District Foundation, with Sue and Lester Smith, holding a photo of what became the Smith Clinic on Holly Hall.

LESTER AND SUE SMITH Dog Parade 12

Fun-loving animal lovers, Sue and Lester Smith wore costumes to join the Dog Parade in their neighborhood.

LESTER AND SUE SMITH Houston Children's Charity

The former professional dancers hit the dance floor at the Children’s Charity Gala in 2013.

Dedication-of-Lester-and-Sue-Smith-Clinic

The Smiths with Dr. David Poplack at the Lester and Sue Smith Clinic at Texas Children’s Cancer Center. The Clinic is scheduled to officially open on May 9.


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