Pull back the curtain and learn why the county's most generous give

Florence and Keith Smith attend a recent SPIN event. The program helps feed and house Orange County's most vulnerable. (Photo courtesy of Keith Smith)

As the social season debuts on the Orange Coast I thought it would be interesting to explore the anatomy of one specific philanthropic couple dedicated to one particular nonprofit in the community.

Folks often ask, “Why do people donate so much money to this or that organization?”

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“Do they really know where their money is going?”

“Aren’t nonprofits just another kind of business?”

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“Is the donation for a tax deduction?”

“Isn’t the charity gala circuit just about social networking and a fashion parade for the rich?”

Legitimate questions to be sure. Further, there is certainly validity in the implied answers to all of the common questions.

Yet having covered the scene for years, I am confident reporting that the truth is often behind the mirror.

Which is why I share the story of Keith and Florence Smith. The Newport Beach couple arrived in Orange County some 26 years ago, following Keith’s meteoric rise in the business world from manager of a Dairy Queen store to the top echelon of the shopping center world.

Born in Franklin Grove, Ill., a town of some 500 residents, Keith grew up as the son of hardworking parents in the produce business.

“We always had food on the table, but there was no extra money,” he said.

He did not have the chance to attend college. Instead, within a year following high school graduation, a boyhood friend from a well-to-do family offered Keith an opportunity to go to work at one of his father’s business ventures on the East Coast. So off he went to Meriden, Conn., to work at a Dairy Queen.

Rising to manager in short speed, Keith would meet his future bride, Florence. Their journey together would begin.

Still in his early 20s, Keith was recruited from Dairy Queen to develop a chain of Tastee Freez stores in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The project proved successful, and he eventually purchased the franchise with financing from the owner who had hired him.

That opportunity changed the lives of Keith and Florence Smith.

Within a short time, they sold the chain.

“For the first time in our lives, we had money,” he said.

And with that money, Keith’s career took off. From Tastee Freez, his next stop was opening an advertising agency, Keith B. Smith Associates. Soon he would represent a big discount department store chain, Arlan’s, a forerunner to Walmart. His first agency would grow, and soon he would open a second, larger agency in New York City.

At the ad agency, Keith created the concept of inviting celebrities to assist him by making personal appearances at the stores to increase customer traffic. He rallied many of the era’s biggest names, including Van Johnson, Joey Heatherton, Forrest Tucker, Eddie Arnold, Ed McMahon, Rick Jason and his personal favorite, Jayne Mansfield. The concept was a smash. The public flocked to the events, and the merchants realized significant sales gains.

As the shopping mall business was exploding, Keith sold his agency and became a founding partner in the Macerich Co., which specialized in acquiring existing malls.

As director of acquisitions, he traveled the country. In 1976, the company purchased Lakewood Center, then one of the largest malls in the country, and relocated their corporate offices from New York to Santa Monica, which is where the Smiths decided to settle.

With all of this success, Keith and Florence, who had both risen from humble beginnings, raised a family and built a life based on hard work and high standards, wanted to “give back.” It was Florence who set the couple on a philanthropic journey. She was volunteering as a teacher’s aid for underprivileged students in Santa Monica when she met a bright young boy from a seriously troubled family on the verge of eviction.

“ ‘We have to do something,’ ” she told Keith.

For more than a year Florence had filled a role as surrogate grandmother to the boy, learning more about the family in crisis.

What happened next is perhaps the heart of this story, as well as the message about the motivation of people passionate about helping others.

In 1995 the Smiths purchased a three-bedroom home in Lakewood for the boy and his family. This gave them a permanent home in a safe environment, and it also gave them an opportunity to get their financial life back on track. There were no mandatory requirements, and the family lived comfortably in the home for 23 years.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, when Keith and Florence settled in Newport Beach. There they would be introduced to a nonprofit, Serving People In Need (SPIN), by friends Frank and Peggy Listi, long-time advocates of the SPIN programs aimed at ending homelessness for children and families in Orange County. It was kismet, the perfect union of passion and purpose for the Smith family and for SPIN.

Over the past 14 years, the Smiths have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to SPIN outreach, ranking as the largest individual donors.

In our recent interview, the Smiths confided that they give to other causes, but said it would be hard to imagine any organization with leaders more committed than Jean Wegener and Kim Frazier.

In addition to funding housing needs, Florence has in the past served as a dedicated volunteer every week, preparing meals for SPIN’s food service, which helps feed the homeless on the streets of Orange County’s poorest neighborhoods.

Coming up on Oct. 5, the Smiths will underwrite the annual SPIN gala fundraiser as presenting sponsors at the Newport Beach Country Club. The “Oktoberfest” event will star comic Bobby Collins from “Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.”

To learn more about SPIN, or to attend and support the dinner contact, Frazier at KimF@SPINOC.org.

The back story on Keith and Florence Smith is only one example of why well-meaning people step up to make a difference. It is not just about tax deductions, or glamorous parties.

We must always pull back the curtain to find the real story about people. Impressions are often just that — impressions. The O.C. can be proud of the Smiths and many others with the same genuine motivation to make a difference.

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