Smith, Cyrus Rowlett (1899–1990)

By: Chris Pieper

Type: Biography

Published: July 1, 1995

Updated: June 28, 2021

Cyrus Rowlett (C. R.) Smith, president and cofounder of American Airlines, was born in the small cotton-farming community of Minerva, Texas, on September 9, 1899, one of seven children of Roy E. and Marion Burck Smith. Young C. R. worked picking cotton until he was old enough to get a job as a clerk in nearby Whitney. In 1921 Smith entered the school of business administration at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was president of his junior class and a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. Upon graduation in 1925, Smith went to work for the Texas-Louisiana Power Company, where he was spotted by A. P. Barrett, owner of Fort Worth-based Texas Air Transport. Barrett offered him a position as assistant treasurer in the fledgling airline, and by 1934 Texas Air Transport had merged with other aviation companies to become American Airlines (see AMR CORPORATION), with C. R. Smith as its president. Smith married Elizabeth Manget of Dallas on December 29, 1934, but their marriage ended in divorce soon after the birth of their son. In 1935 Smith moved the company headquarters to Chicago, solidifying the airline's position as a national carrier. Smith resigned from American in 1942 to enter the army. During World War II he quickly rose to the rank of major general as deputy commander of the Army's Air Transport Command. Smith was a highly decorated officer; he received the Distinguished Unit Citation, the Air Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Legion of Merit, among many others. After the war Smith returned to his post as president and chief executive officer of American Airlines, continuing to improve both the quality and safety of commercial air transport. During Smith's thirty-year service at the helm, American rose to global prominence in aviation, setting such milestones as bringing luxury-class jets to commercial airlines in the form of the Boeing 747. His contributions, however, extended beyond American Airlines. Throughout the 1960s Smith led the effort to construct the airport between Dallas and Fort Worth (see DALLAS-FORT WORTH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT). He also had a strong love of the Old West and donated 575 volumes of Western Americana, now known as the Marian Burch Smith Collection, to the University of Texas library. Smith's rapid rise in the world of business landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1958, and in 1961 he was one of only ten Americans to receive the Horatio Alger Award for his admirable ascent from austere beginnings. Smith left American Airlines in 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson selected him to be Secretary of Commerce. In 1973 he was asked to return to American to replace then-chairman George Spater. Smith retired from American Airlines for the last time in 1974, having served there longer than any other employee. Until his death he was active in philanthropy and art. Smith also never ceased being proud of his Texas roots. As a successful alumnus, Smith was honored by the University of Texas with his own exhibit in the Perry-Castañeda Library, featuring memorabilia from his life and many of the awards he received. The University of Texas Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center houses the C. R. Smith Collection of Western Art, valued at approximately $2 million. Smith died on April 4, 1990, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Richard H. Saunders, Collecting the West: The C. R. Smith Collection of Western American Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988). Robert J. Sterling, Eagle: The History of American Airlines (New York: St. Martin's-Marek, 1985). University Art Museum, Paintings from the C. R. Smith Collection (exhibition catalog, University of Texas at Austin, 1970). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who's Who in America, 1968–69.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Chris Pieper, “Smith, Cyrus Rowlett,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995
June 28, 2021