It was a hot, punishingly steamy July day in New Orleans, but you’d never have known it to look at Michael O. Smith as he strode into a meeting room wearing a tailor-made suit and buttoned-up vest. His necktie was perfectly knotted, and his black shoes were glossy.
Smith’s explanation for his dapper appearance was simple: “I work in a hotel.”
True, he’s the general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and has worked in Hyatt hotels for 41 years, but there’s more to Smith than meets the eye.
The North Carolina native is a go-to do-gooder who helps organizations like the United Negro College Fund and the Human Rights Campaign find the money they need to educate, fight for equality and uplift the less fortunate.
Smith, 62, was one of six children raised by a single mother in the rural South, where poverty was a major barrier. After earning a scholarship, he became the first member of his family to go to college, and he quickly landed a job with the Hyatt hotel chain.
When he was 27, an event came along that changed his life.
While working at a Cincinnati Hyatt, Smith collapsed with a cerebral aneurysm.
“It took three or four months to get back to work, but that was a second chance for me,” he said. “You get to the point when you’re thinking about your mortality, about your legacy and being a difference maker. … Since then, I recommitted myself to doing good work.”
For his commitment to making a difference, Smith, 62, has been chosen to receive the 2018 Times-Picayune Loving Cup.
The Loving Cup, which is given to celebrate activity in the preceding year, has been awarded since 1901 to men and women who have worked unselfishly for the community without expectation of public recognition or material reward. A public presentation will be held later.
“To get this kind of recognition, knowing that The Times-Picayune has been giving out this award for nearly 120 years, is a gigantic honor,” he said.
But he was blunt about his type of philanthropy: “I’m not the guy who writes the check; I’m the guy who does the work.”
Smith’s evolution took time. When he started down the philanthropic path, he was working behind the scenes, helping groups pull together events that were held at his hotel. This was part of a philosophy he recalled spelling out in a speech in 1994, when he was general manager of the Grand Hyatt Washington in the nation’s capital: Once you have the platform, he said then, you have to give back.
It took Leah Chase, the chef and former Loving Cup winner, to pull him out of the shadows, he said: “She said, ‘You know, Mr. Smith, you do so much. You should be recognized, and I know you don’t like that.’”
But he does more than merely provide the venue. He helps organize the event, and he engages well-heeled friends, including corporate leaders, to kick in.
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” 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.”
“He could get things done like nobody’s business,” said Ti Adelaide Martin, an owner of Commander’s Palace Restaurant, who has worked with Smith on several events. “When he’s in, he’s all in.”
Smith has succeeded because he not only gives of himself but also encourages others to join in, said Joel L. Vilmenay, WDSU-TV’s president and general manager, in a letter nominating Smith for the Loving Cup.
The United Negro College Fund, which supports Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is an organization close to Smith’s heart because he graduated from an HBCU: Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, where he majored in business administration with a concentration in economics. He has since taken business courses at the University of Houston and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to the UNCF, Smith has served the Sisters of the Holy Family; the Human Rights Campaign, which works for LGBTQ rights; the Boy Scouts; and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
And his work has been honored. The City Council has given him two proclamations, Dillard and Xavier universities have given him honorary doctorates, he was named Hyatt Hotels General Manager of the Year in 2017, the Young Leadership Council proclaimed him a role model in 2014, and he was inducted into the National Black College Hall of Fame in 2015. And he was an executive producer of the Emmy-winning documentary “Making 300: Celebrating New Orleans Icon Leah Chase.”
Smith, who also has served on a long list of boards, “is driven by wanting to see positive things happen, and he is a man who has been blessed with a level of energy that few people have, which is fortunate for the community because he has given so much of himself and the hotel that he manages to ensure that community organizations can maximize their impact,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.
This is Smith’s second tour of duty at the New Orleans Hyatt. He was food and beverage director from 1989 to 1992, and he returned in 2004 to be the general manager.
A year later, Hurricane Katrina struck, and the levees failed. Smith rode out the storm at the Hyatt, which was battered, and the 1,200-room hotel became the de facto headquarters of city government. Two battalions of the National Guard were stationed there, and an armed police officer was stationed outside the hotel until Sept. 2, 2005, five days after the storm, when 2,975 occupants, plus 900 staffers and their families, left.
The night before their departure, Smith arranged for buses to get them to the airport, and he said he broke into the hotel safe, with the help of an engineer, to get enough money to provide every staffer with several hundred dollars.
Of his service during that period, Smith said, “We had to do it.”
But his work wasn’t done. He presided over a $285 million renovation of the hotel, which reopened in 2011. “When we reopened, I said it’s our responsibility to give back to the community.”
Smith, whose wife, Yolanda Smith, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, said he isn’t interested in moving up in the Hyatt hierarchy: “I feel this is where I belong.”
Might there be a cause he has overlooked?
Chuckling, he shook his head and said, “I don’t leave anything on the table.”
Previous Loving Cup recipients are:
Frank T. Howard, 1901; Isidore Newman, 1902; Sophie B. Wright, 1903; Dr. A.W. DeRoaldes, 1904; Charles Janvier, 1905; W.R. Bloomfield, 1906; and Ida Richardson, 1907.
No awards were presented in 1908 and 1909.
Dr. Sara T. Mayo, 1910; Hugh McCloskey, 1911; R.M. Walmsley, 1912; Leon C. Simon, 1913; Deborah Milliken, 1914; W.B. Thompson, 1915; W.R. Irby, 1916; Mrs. John Dibert, 1917; Eleanor McMain, 1918; Mrs. James Oscar Nixon, 1919; Charles Weinberger, 1920; Jean Gordon, 1921; Rudolf S. Hecht, 1922; Simon Schwartz, 1923; Frank B. Williams, 1924; Rabbi Emil W. Leipziger, 1925; and W.J. Warrington, 1926.
J.P. Butler, 1927; Brig. Gen. Allison Owen, 1928; Mrs. A.J. Stallings, 1929. Edgar B. Stern, 1930; B.C. Casanas, 1931; Thomas F. Cunningham, 1932; Felix P. Dreyfous, 1933; Charles A. Favrot, 1934; Warren Kearny, 1935; Nicholas Bauer, 1936; Col. L. Kemper Williams, 1937; and Samuel Zemurray, 1938.
Joseph A. Airey, 1939; Dr. Rudolph Matas, 1940; Charles E. Dunbar Jr., 1941; William G. Zetzmann, 1942; Sister Stanislaus Malone, 1943; A.B. Paterson, 1944; Dr. Alton Ochsner, 1945; Mrs. Joseph E. Friend, 1946; Mrs. Charles F. Buck Jr., 1947; Charles E. Fenner, 1948; Mrs. James Weaks Reily, 1949; and Harry Latter, 1950.
Harry McCall, 1951; Joseph H. Epstein, 1952; Mrs. Ernest A. Robin, 1953; Carmelite Janvier, 1954; A.B. Freeman, 1955; Clifford F. Favrot, 1956; Capt. Neville Levy, 1957; Crawford H. Ellis, 1958; James Gilly Jr., 1959; Martha Gilmore Robinson, 1960; Leon Heymann, 1961; Mrs. Robert Laird, 1962; and Percival Stern, 1963.
Edith Stern, 1964; Darwin S. Fenner, 1965; Edgar A.G. Bright, 1966; Rabbi Julian B. Feibelman, 1967; Harold Salmon Sr., 1968; Lucile Blum, 1969; Lester J. Lautenschlaeger, 1970; the Rev. J.D. Grey, 1971; Clayton L. Nairne, 1972; Norma Monnin Hynes, 1973; William B. Burkenroad Jr., 1974; Francis C. Doyle, 1975; Albert W. Dent, 1976; Richard West Freeman, 1977; the Rev. Peter V. Rogers, 1978; and Harry McCall Jr., 1979.
James J. Coleman Sr., 1980; Armand LeGardeur, 1981; Archbishop Philip Hannan, 1982; Ed Rowley, 1983; Rosa Freeman Keller, 1984; Bryan Bell, 1985; Michael J. Molony Jr., 1986; Mary Pumilia, 1987; A. Louis Read, 1988; Dave Dixon, 1989; Carolyn Gay "Blondie" Labouisse, 1990; Norman Francis, 1991; and Diana Lewis, 1992.
John F. Bricker, 1993; Betty Wisdom, 1994; Anne Milling, 1995; Lester Kabacoff, 1996; Leah Chase, 1997; Sunny Norman, 1998; Herschel L. Abbott Jr., 1999; Alden McDonald, 2000; Waldemar Nelson, 2001; C. Allen Favrot, 2002; Fran Villere, 2003; Moise Steeg Jr., 2004; and Louis Freeman, 2005.
Ruthie Frierson, 2006; Bob Brown, 2007; R. King Milling, 2008; Scott Cowen, 2009; Tommy Cvitanovich, 2010; William Goldring, 2011; Mark Surprenant, 2012; Millie Charles, 2013; Gary Solomon, 2014; Phyllis Taylor, 2015; Roger Ogden, 2016; and Cleland Powell, 2017.