Cyrus Rowlett Smith was born on September 9, 1899, in Minerva, Texas. At the age of nine, he secured his first job – office boy to cattleman C.T. Herring. He also worked as a cotton picker, store clerk, bookkeeper, and bank teller. Although he had not graduated from high school, Smith received permission to enter the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied business administration, economics, and law.
In the mid-1920s, A.P. Barrett hired Smith as assistant treasurer of the Texas-Louisiana Power Company. Barrett purchased Texas Air Transport in 1928 and asked Smith to be the firm’s secretary and treasurer. After six years of name and management changes, Texas Air Transport became American Airlines; Smith was elected president of the new company on May 13, 1934.
When the United States entered World War II, Smith joined the Army Air Force to help organize the Air Transport Command. He played a major role in opening the Great Circle Route, which connected Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland and Great Britain, for use by ATC transports. In 1945, Smith returned to American Airlines. For his World War II service, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit, and a designation of Commander, Order of the British Empire.
In the post-World War II years, Smith led American Airlines through a period of great change in the air transportation industry. He joined with United to help develop the DC-6, and would later push for the development of the DC-7. Smith also took the bold step of ordering Boeing 707 jets in the mid-1950s instead of the Douglas DC-8—a hugely successful move that left American Airline’s competitors scrambling to catch up.
In early 1968, C.R. Smith retired as chief executive of American Airlines. His long-term friend, President Lyndon B. Johnson, appointed him Secretary of Commerce, a post he filled during the last year of President Johnson’s administration. In January 1973, American’s Board of Directors asked Smith to return as interim chairman while they searched for a permanent chief executive. He agreed to come back to American, but with the condition that he would not be paid for his time. Smith remained until Albert V. Casey was elected chairman in February 1974.
On the rare occasions that Smith was not in his office or on an airplane, he enjoyed being outdoors. Smith married Elizabeth L. Manget in 1934, and they had one son, Doug. The marriage soon ended and Smith never remarried. He is quoted as saying that his one and only true love was American Airlines.
Smith was named to the Aviation Hall of Fame, the Travel Hall of Fame, and the Business Hall of Fame. He died on April 4, 1990, at the age of 90 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.