Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Cyrus R. Smith (1968–1969): Secretary of Commerce

Cyrus Rowlett Smith was born on September 9, 1899, in Minerva, Texas, and grew up with his mother and 6 brothers -- his father having left the family when Cyrus was nine years old. Smith was the oldest of the children and worked to help his mother, who raised the family by teaching school and keeping boarders. He worked as an office boy in Amarillo, Texas, for a wealthy cattle rancher and held several other jobs before he dropped out of high school to take a job as a bookkeeper for a small bank. Smith moved up, and in 1919 he was working for the Texas secretary of state in the franchise tax department.

He decided to resume his education and received special permission to attend the School of Business Administration and Law at the University of Texas; Smith maintained a job as a part-time examiner with the Federal Reserve Bank in Houston while he attended school. He left school six years later without a degree and became a junior clerk in a Dallas-based accounting firm. In 1926, he became assistant treasurer of the Texas-Louisiana Power Company based in Fort Worth, Texas.

After his company purchased Texas Air Transport, he was promoted to treasurer and then financial vice president of the newly acquired airline. After deciding to pursue aviation as a career, Smith received his pilot’s license. Following several mergers, Texas Air Transport became part of American Airways; Smith first supervised the southern division of American Airways and then took over as vice president of operations. In October 1934, he became president of American Airlines, where he oversaw the modernization and standardization of the equipment; by 1941, Smith had helped American Airlines become the leading domestic carrier in the United States.

During World War II, Smith took a leave of absence from American Airlines and joined the U.S. Air Corps Ferrying Command. As a deputy commander, Smith helped develop a worldwide air transport system. After the war, he came back to American Airlines and was made chairman of the board and chief executive officer.

Smith left American in 1968 to become secretary of commerce in President Johnson’s cabinet. Serving for only nine months, he left government and joined an investment firm. Smith returned to American to serve as an unpaid chief executive officer for a six-month stint after American had run into economic and managerial problems. Cyrus Smith passed away on April 4, 1990, in Annapolis, Maryland.