William R. Smith, 83, lover of railroads great and small

Career carried him from coach cleaner to railroad president

  • William R. Smith former president of Canton Railroad Company.
William R. Smith former president of Canton Railroad Company. (Submitted photo, Baltimore…)
January 20, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

William R. Smith, a career railroader who rose from coach cleaner to head the Canton Railroad Co. and was also a strong advocate for the port of Baltimore, died Saturday from complications of Parkinson's disease at Gilchrist Hospice in Towson.

The longtime Ruxton resident was 83.

"Bill was a mentor to me and I always appreciated the confidence he had in me," said John C. Magness, president and chief executive officer of the Canton Railroad Co. "He had a bit of an edge and like Earl Weaver, could be tough but he was always right. It was a life well-lived."

"Bill was an energetic, detail-oriented person. He was a man who enjoyed new ideas," said Helen Delich Bentley, former maritime editor of The Baltimore Sun, who later became a congresswoman and federal maritime commissioner.

"He expended a lot of energy trying to improve business in and through Baltimore. He never hesitated in going after a possible customer. He was there," said Mrs. Bentley. "When he assumed a task, he gave it his all."

The son of an oil company worker and a vaudeville booking agent, William Richard Smith was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he graduated from West High School.

He served in the Army, where he attained the rank of corporal, and worked from 1947 to 1948 as a medical laboratory technician.

Mr. Smith then enrolled at Ohio State University, where he studied business administration on the GI Bill. He worked his way through college as a coach-cleaner for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

"He saw the power of the railroad industry and railroads became his transportation niche," said a daughter, Catherine Durkin of Ruxton.

After earning his bachelor's degree in 1953, Mr. Smith went to work in the freight traffic department of the Pennsylvania Railroad where he rose to sales manager.

He held freight traffic assignments in Cincinnati, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Columbus and Milwaukee before coming to Baltimore in 1958, when he was named foreign sales manager.

While working for the Pennsy, Mr. Smith honed his business acumen.

"I had a boss in Milwaukee who used to say, 'Use your imagination, use your imagination,'" Mr. Smith told The Baltimore Sun in a 1998 interview.

"Finally, one day I went to the library and got out a book on imagination. It's funny how much you can learn. I try to find out everything about a problem and then figure out what the practical solutions are. Then, I set out to do it."

He left the Pennsy in 1961 when he joined the Canton Railroad Co., a 39-mile industrial railroad that began operating in 1906. Canton Railroad was an offspring of the Canton Co. that was founded in 1828 by some of the same businessmen who established the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827.

Mr. Smith's first job for the Canton was foreign sales manager, a position he held until 1970 when he left to become vice president of sales for the Dickinson-Heffner Real Estate Development Co.

He returned to the Canton in 1974 as vice president, a position he held until 1980. In 1976, he was elected to be a director of the Canton Co. and its three subsidiaries: Canton Railroad Co., the Cottman Co. and Canton Agency Inc.

Mr. Smith left the Canton in 1980 and for the next decade was associated with TDRC Corp., sales agents for an Atlanta rail car leasing firm that he founded with Robert W. Dale Jr., another Canton executive.

He returned to the Canton a third time when he was named president of the line from 1990, a position he held until retiring in 1997.

During Mr. Smith's tenure, made marketing and improving customer relations "top priorities," wrote Gary W. Schlerf in his 1996 book, "The History of the Canton Railroad Company: Artery of Baltimore's Industrial Heartland."

"His real estate and development background strengthened the Railroad's new policy of preserving or acquiring access to any property which has development potential, particularly port facilities," Mr. Schlerf wrote. "Smith's vision includes looking at new opportunities and directions for the Railroad to grow."

In 1991, the Canton purchased CSX's Canton Branch, and a year later, introduced freight service that operated at night on the former Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad, now the present day Light Rail Line, from the city to Ferndale.

Mr. Smith's management style allowed him to make decisions swiftly.

"We don't have the committee system that large companies have," he told The Sun in 1998. "This is more satisfying and a lot more fun. You can make decisions quickly, and you get to know all of your customers.

"He had out-of-the-box thinking," said Mr. Magness. "He always said, 'Don't take no for an answer,' and I took that from him.

"He did a lot of business on a handshake, which he felt was as important as a written contract," he said. "The only thing he wanted was not to be disappointed."

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