Lester H. Smith, a two-time National Latin Dance Champion, is one of Houston’s most colorful and respected philanthropists. But the second-generation Texas oilman is also known for his decade’s long battles with cancer – and his ability to beat the odds time and time again. He reveals his passion for life, his resilience and courage, and an intensely generous spirit in the pages of his first book, You Gotta Dance Like No One’s Watching (Bright Sky Press, with Trish Morille).
A native of Wharton, Texas, Smith battled bladder cancer for nearly two decades while building a successful energy business and training as a competitive dancer. But it was a diagnosis of aggressive prostate cancer that nearly ended his life. In true “Lester style”, he committed himself to a full recovery and pledged to do whatever he could to help others struggling with cancer. Just weeks after successful surgery, Lester and his wife Sue were back on the dance floor; eight months later, the dynamic couple won their first of two prestigious titles - the United States Grand Senior Latin Dance Championship.
Smith’s battles with cancer – and his fierceness in overcoming them – prompted him to turn his own personal battle with cancer into a very public campaign to raise awareness of the disease, encourage early detection and fund critical cancer research at the Texas Medical Center.
The Smiths have supported many philanthropic causes in medical research and patient care. They are the third largest donors to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas where their significant gifts established The Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and The Lester and Sue Smith Urology Clinic, named in their honor. They have also endowed three chairs at the College for Urologic Education, Research and Reproductive Medicine, and a chair in pediatric urology at Texas Children’s Hospital. Lester has also been a major donor to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children’s Cancer Center, and The University of Texas Health Science Center where The Lester Smith Cardiovascular Training Center is located. He is a frequent national speaker and contributor on cancer survivorship and has served as a peer counselor for hundreds of prostate and bladder cancer patients and their families.
In addition to his work with Baylor College of Medicine, Smith is a Trustee of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where he provided extensive funding to advance science education and bring diverse exhibitions including Body Worlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. His fascination with gems and minerals led to the creation of the Lester and Sue Smith Gem Vault, featuring the most extraordinary cut and polished jewels ever displayed in a single permanent exhibition. At the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Smiths established the Smith Distinguished Lecture Series, a series of free public lectures presented throughout the year by world-renowned speakers.
In February 2011, Lester and Sue Smith chaired An Evening with Legend Robert Duvall, a benefit for Texas Children’s Cancer Center. The Smiths pledged a dollar-for-dollar match for the event, and raised $9.1 million dollars – a new record for the institution.
Concerned with the plight of those without access to timely, quality medical care, in April 2011 Lester and Sue Smith provided a $15 million grant – the largest private gift in Harris County Hospital District history – to establish the Smith Clinic, an ambulatory care center designed exclusively for outpatients. Scheduled to open in late 2012, the five-story building will include the Smith Breast Center, Smith Infusion Therapy Clinic, Smith Diagnostic Imaging Department and Smith Oncology Clinic.
In June 2011, The Lester and Sue Smith Foundation announced the launch of the Lester Smith Pink Well Challenge, a year-long fundraising effort offering $1 million in matching grants to organizations engaged in breast cancer research, prevention, treatment and patient support throughout the U.S. Symbolized by an active pink pump jack in the heart of West Texas, Smith is using proceeds from his energy industry successes to “pay it forward” in supporting breast cancer research and patient care.
Numerous Houston organizations have honored the Smiths for their immense philanthropic spirit including the Assistance League, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Children’s Charity, American Heart Association and Holocaust Museum Houston. In 2006, the couple accepted the National Association for Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Excellence in Fundraising Award, and named Outstanding Volunteer Fundraisers.
In addition to serving as a Trustee of Baylor College of Medicine, Lester Smith is a member of the Board of Directors of The Holocaust Museum Houston, Board of Visitors at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Prostate Cancer Foundation. He is a Trustee and Past Chairman of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The Lester and Sue Smith Foundation supports numerous non-profit organizations dedicated to medical science, education, arts and humanitarian causes.