[Editor’s note: A longer version of the following article first appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal.]
By Tom Lambeth
In recent days, much attention has been given to the untimely death 75 years ago of Zachary Smith Reynolds, the youngest son of R. J. and Katharine Smith Reynolds.
While the details of Smith Reynolds’ death will forever mystify and provoke lively conjecture, to let his story stop with that kind of exercise would be to miss another story – of the daring of a young man and of a remarkable philanthropic tradition and legacy that grew out of his family’s response to his passing.
Smith was born in Winston-Salem on November 5, 1911, and by the time he was 16, in the same year Lindberg made his triumphant flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Smith had earned his private pilot’s license.
Three years later, not yet 20, Smith set out on a flight that carried him from England to Hong Kong, thus joining the ranks of accomplished and courageous sports pilots in the Golden Age of aviation.
Less than a year later, he was gone.
In 1936, his brother and his sisters forfeited their portion of his estate and placed it in trust for the people of North Carolina.
Their uncle Will Reynolds joined with them in the creation of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and two decades later, when he died, he left his estate in a trust for the sole purpose of paying its annual income into that same foundation.
He had two conditions — that it continue to restrict its grants to organizations within North Carolina, and that the foundation retain the name of his young nephew.
So began the organized philanthropy of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
In the years following the creation, Smith’s sister Mary would create the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; his sister Nancy would establish the ARCA foundation; his brother Dick, the Sapelo Island Foundation; and his aunt Kate, the Kate B. Reynolds Trust.
When Smith’s son Christopher, born several months after Smith’s death, died at age 17 climbing Mt. Hood in Oregon, his estate created the Christopher Smith Reynolds Foundation.
The personal philanthropy of individual members of the Reynolds family, much of it anonymous, is equally impactful.
Smith Reynolds’s daughter, the late Anne Forsyth, was a generous woman, and her sons – Smith’s two grandsons – Jock and Zach Tate, have been active in the foundation that bears his name.
It should be remembered that the family’s philanthropy exists because of the entrepreneurial talents of R. J. Reynolds. There would be no giving without the money to give.
It exists also because of the philanthropic impulses of Katharine Smith Reynolds, who brought small-town, good-neighbor traditions to a family of wealth.
In the years of Reynolds philanthropy, the various foundations have made grants that probably total more than a billion dollars.
Since the two largest – Z. Smith Reynolds and Kate B. Reynolds – restrict their activity to North Carolina, as much as 90 percent of that philanthropy has occurred in our state.
Of that amount, something like $400 million – perhaps a good bit more – has been spent in Winston-Salem.
The family home, Reynolda, is still a vital part of this community. Wake Forest University sits on the “back 40.” The magnificent home of the Grays, Graylyn, sits on 89 acres Mrs. Reynolds sold that family in the l920s, and Reynolda House itself sparkles with programs and collections of art that enrich the community and visitors from outside Winston-Salem almost every day.
This fall, Reynolda House will mark not the tragic death of Smith Reynolds but the triumph and bravery of his flight to China.
The museum will have an exhibition about Smith Reynolds’ aviation accomplishments with a 1930 Savoia-Marchetti S-56 amphibious plane like the one Smith flew more than seven decades ago.
There will also be programs on the lawn, outdoor movies, picnics, and games – times for families to enjoy together.
Those who loved Zachary Smith Reynolds and wanted him remembered have chosen, in his name and the names of others in his family, to make the lives of others better – indeed to make the life of an entire state better.
Out of the income from his estate, there are emergency rooms in small North Carolina communities and there are minority doctors where there were none before.
Bluff Mountain just west of Winston-Salem and Nags Head Woods on the Outer Banks have been saved and preserved as rich environmental treasures.
There is an educational wing at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Distinguished teachers with endowed professorships are in classrooms and students with scholarships study on the campuses of private and public colleges in our state.
There are places of refuge for the victims of domestic violence, and Martin Luther King’s trip to India to study the non-violent tactics of Gandhi was funded by income from this philanthropy.
A song my generation listened to long ago, unaware of the history shrouded in its melody, speaks of “dreams we’ve thrown away,” of deeds that are “written on the wind.”
Neither the Four Freshmen, who sang the song, nor any of us will ever know what dreams of Smith Reynolds were thrown away that fateful night in 1932.
What we do know is that, in a brief lifetime, he wrote on the winds of early aviation exciting stories and we know that those who loved him found a means after his death to do good in his name and to fulfill the dreams of so many others.
Tom Lambeth is senior fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and its former executive director.