September 13 2019 | Latest News
Standing in the splendor of the Empire Ballroom of the hotel he helped restore from Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Michael O. Smith on Thursday received The Times-Picayune Loving Cup for 2018 as several hundred friends gave him a prolonged standing ovation.
"Wow! This is overwhelming, to say the least," said Smith, 62, the Hyatt Regency Hotel's general manager.
The Loving Cup has been awarded since 1901 to reward New Orleanians for doing good works without expectation of reward.
In his remarks, Smith extended credit to colleagues, including the waiters and food and drink servers at stands that ringed the ballroom. "You can't do this by yourself," he said. "It would be impossible."
He also lavished credit on Leah Chase, the chef, restaurateur and former Loving Cup recipient, for making him aware of the importance of diversity, from the staff in the kitchen to the creators of the art on the walls.
Chase, who died in June, was also featured in a video in which leaders of local charities paid tribute to Smith for not only holding their fundraisers at the hotel but also for boosting the amount of money they raised.
Smith explained his civic philosophy by reading Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena," which says credit goes to the person who acts, not the person who sits on the sidelines.
Even though Smith has been a successful businessman who has opened his doors to a broad range of activities and causes he backs, Peter Kovacs, the editor of The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, said Smith has been, at least in some circles, an unsung hero.
"Well," he said, "we're fixing to take care of that last adjective today by honoring Michael with The Times-Picayune Loving Cup."
In opening remarks, John Georges, the CEO of Georges Media and owner of The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, praised Smith for presiding over the $285 million renovation of the hotel.
“This year’s recipient would have qualified (for the Loving Cup) for bringing this beautiful hotel back to life after Katrina,” he said, “but his contributions to the well-being of New Orleans go far beyond that achievement.”
The reason, Georges said, is that Smith has let the Hyatt Regency be used for events for charities and nonprofit corporations.
“After Katrina, we all had decisions to make, whether to cut and run, or stay and make New Orleans better than before Katrina,” Georges said. “Michael’s decision to stay has definitely made New Orleans a better place to live. Thank you, Michael!”
This meshes with Smith’s view of himself. Even though he has spent more than four decades in the hotel business, “I’ve never wanted to be defined as a hotelier,” he said in an interview, “because I think my life’s work is for philanthropy, and that’s been my passion.”
In this role, Smith does more than merely provide a venue for events. He helps organize the events, and he encourages well-heeled friends, including corporate leaders, to kick in.
“I’m not the guy who writes the check; I’m the guy who does the work,” Smith said in discussing his role as a philanthropist.
A case in point is the Mayor’s Masked Ball, which raises money for the United Negro College Fund. During its first 27 years, it had raised about $1 million, Smith said. “We took it to another level.”
Indeed. “We got 13 or 14 people to give $25,000 apiece,” he said, and the gala raised about $10 million in the next six years.
How did he accomplish that? Edgar Chase III, who sits on the board of the foundation named for his parents, Edgar L. “Dooky” Chase Jr. and Leah Chase, offered this explanation:
“He likes seeing people aspire to do better than they could ever possibly aspire to. He likes to stir up inspiration and give you that can-do feeling. He would reach out to you and see that you’re a group on the move, and he would use you or your group to uplift the community.”
Smith, who grew up in poverty as the youngest of six children in North Carolina, was the first member of his family to go to college.
His mother, who had a 10th-grade education, encouraged him, saying, “You’re going to be different. You’ve got to be different.”