A life of work, a legacy for thousands video

Fairfax NZ

An almost entirely unknown but very wealthy Christchurch businessman who died two years ago leaving $20m to charities in the city, and told no one but his closest family. We can now reveal his generosity to the city.

From the small plastic window of the photo album's front cover, Jane Smith and  her husband grin in a moment in time. Their faces are weathered by age, but giggling and joyous all the same.

The first page reveals a lengthy dedication from Jane Smith to her partner of more than six decades, surrounded by photographs, both recent and black-and-white. She recounts how thankful she is of him and their many memories; their children, their home and the life they had built together.

She memorialises the day they met in England and the flowers he sent her soon after. A photo of their wedding party, celebrating in front of the home they built in Riccarton, bears no suggestion she had arrived off a plane just days earlier, having never set foot on New Zealand soil before.

Cyril Smith in his younger days.
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Cyril Smith in his younger days.

The pages that follow overflow with moving tributes from family members to their father, their grandfather, their role model, on his 90th birthday. His death nine years later, age 99, was a resounding blow for the family.

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Unbeknownst to the outside world, it was also a blow for Christchurch. For the city would not be what it is today without the influence of Cyril Smith.

A photo of the Smith's wedding party, celebrating in front of their Riccarton home.
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A photo of the Smith's wedding party, celebrating in front of their Riccarton home.

But you have probably never heard his name.

Smith was a man whose fiercely private persona made him an enigma to many; a man people knew not for his personal life, or even his name, but his generosity.

In life, he was a self-made millionaire, a philanthropist and benefactor of millions.

Smith's estate paid for half of Cholmondeley Children's Centre's new $6m building, after the old one was irreparably ...
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Smith's estate paid for half of Cholmondeley Children's Centre's new $6m building, after the old one was irreparably damaged in the earthquakes.

In death, his legacy lives on through some of the largest donations the city has ever seen.

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Because of Smith, 20 guide dogs will be trained, at $50,000 a pop. Disabled high school students will get qualifications. The children of Canterbury will get extra care and support.

See all those houses in Parklands? That was him too.

Days before the two-year anniversary of Smith's death, his widow Jane and son Hilton gathered at Holly Lea Retirement Village, his home of two decades, to remember his many legacies.

It is the first time they have spoken publicly about Smith, and his donated millions. Notoriously private, he shirked publicity for his philanthropy.

But there is a certain spark in Jane Smith's eye when she speaks of her late husband, as if she has been waiting all her life to give him the credit he so rightly deserves.

One donation will allow 20 new guide dogs to be trained at a cost of $50,000 each.
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

One donation will allow 20 new guide dogs to be trained at a cost of $50,000 each.

She admits she finds it hard to tread the fine line between respecting Smith's wishes of privacy, and also giving him due recognition.

But now the time is right, she believes.

In his will, Smith left $20 million to 16 Christchurch charities and organisations. Each had special significance to him, and special significance to Canterbury — a reflection of his enduring love for his hometown. 

Smith was born in Christchurch in 1915, and never left, aside from a few overseas stints.

At 16, he finished school and went to work in his father's small joinery factory.

He started in the business sweeping the floors, Jane Smith says, and worked his way through the ranks. He took the reins at just 21, after his father's sudden death.

Spinal patients will benefit from his $2m legacy.
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

Spinal patients will benefit from his $2m legacy.

Under Smith's direction, the factory went from strength to strength. He eventually went into saw milling to provide timber for the joinery. When modular kitchens came in to fashion, Smith opened a modular kitchen factory in Sockburn. 

"Kitchens were all the rage back then," Jane Smith says.

In 1950, with his businesses in good shape, Smith took leave for an OE to Europe. 

It was there, at the Imperial Hotel in Devon, where he met his future wife. 

It was an ordinary evening when 10 girls sat at the bar, dressed-up and excited to entertain a group of naval officers and a captain. 

Smith was there too, and thankfully for him, those officers never showed up.

Chatty and interesting, Smith took a shine to then 19-year-old Jane. 

"He went off and continued around Europe, but when he came back we would always get together. Then he went away to the USA to continue travels. 

"I said goodbye to him and never thought I'd see him again."

But Smith was in touch soon after his return to Christchurch with a captivating proposal.

"He sent me a cable and he suggested we get married. I sent a cable back and said that's a good suggestion."

In those days, it took seven days for a plane trip from London to Christchurch. A few days after the journey, Cyril and Jane Smith were married at St Barnabas Church in Fendalton.

They had three children; Deborah, Erica and Hilton.

As a father, Hilton Smith remembers Smith as a "great instructor of life".

"He brought up the old school approach a bit, but it was good."

The family settled on Kilmarnock St, close to the factory on Riccarton Rd.

It was nothing like it is today. Back then it was "quite rural", Jane says, surrounded by bare land and a smattering of buildings.

Smith's business continued to grow; soon it was an investment company. 

In 1970, Smith bought land around the Burwood area. He intended to plant radiata pine to supply the factory, but ended up being approached by someone who commented the land was far too nice for a plantation, and suggested he subdivide it.

There, the suburb of Parklands was born.

"He had done very well by that stage. He was always very busy, he was a workaholic," Jane Smith says. 

As his wealth grew, Smith ensured he gave back to the community. He donated money throughout his life; a campervan to the Life Education Trust, money for campaigns at the city mission, money to St George's Hospital. He was also a financial supporter of the National Party. Upon his death, he was their largest single donor, with a bequest of $547,920.

He was also a founding member of the Riccarton Rotary Club.

His family believes he may have given away more money than he spent.

"He led a reasonably modest life. He didn't deny himself anything but he wasn't a flamboyant person at all. He always wanted to use his money well," Jane Smith says.

Not only that, but Smith was talented behind closed doors, too. He played the piano, and was a gifted baritone singer. He might have taken the hobbies up professionally had he not already had so much on his plate, Jane Smith laughs. He was "a very competitive man", after all.

"He wanted to be good at everything."

But he knew how to have fun, too. He was an avid pilot, bought a plane for the family, and loved golf. 

And then there was horse racing. Smith owned, raced and bred thoroughbred horses, and was a life member of the Canterbury Jockey Club.

In 1991, he was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List, for services to the community.

Two decades later, the earthquakes would change everything.

Jane and Cyril Smith had been living in the Heatherlea apartment complex on Deans Ave, which was badly damaged and later demolished.

Smith, then 95, was in town at Landsborough House in the central city at his lawyers. The family had an agonising three-hour wait to find out if he was okay. Jane Smith was in their apartment at the time, and recalls rushing down the stairs as the water tanks exploded on top of her.

The couple were never allowed back into their house.

Eighteen months later, their belongings were lifted out by crane. Jane Smith specifically remembers the sight of the Smith's prized John Gully painting of Lake Wakatipu, hanging from a cable high above their apartment.

"He was 95 and blind but very able. It was only after the earthquakes that he started to deteriorate," Jane Smith says.

Towards the end of 2013, Smith was moved to St Winifred's Hospital.

Five months later, on May 19 2014, he passed away in his sleep at about 3am.

But Smith's legacy was just beginning. His estate was testament to that. 

After he ensured his family, children and grandchildren, were cared for, Smith left $20 million in bequests earmarked exclusively for Canterbury. Many were linked to sentimental causes.

Three million dollars was set aside for the New Zealand Blind Foundation, including $1m to breed guide dogs, because in Smith's later years, he went blind.

Two million was left to the Canterbury District Health Board's (CDHB) spinal unit, because he had a bad back — requiring surgery.

When he was 10, he was in a serious car accident, after running across the road and being struck by a car. It left him in hospital for a year.

Thus, the $1m for CDHB paediatrics.

Donations to the Child Cancer Foundation might have been due to the various skin cancers he had that were removed, Jane Smith muses, and a grant to Paralympics New Zealand because he had one leg shorter than the other.

And the John Gully Lake Wakatipu painting that was saved by crane? It was always Smith's wish that it be gifted to the Christchurch Art Gallery, where it sits today.

Hilton Smith has continued in the family business, Smith Developments Ltd. The three children are directors in Smith Investment Holdings.

He does not know what his father would make of a public show of thanks for his philanthropy, were he alive.

But he said it was time it was done.

"He didn't seek any recognition for anything. But I think he deserves that recognition, they both do. 

"All that money, he wanted to make sure it would benefit Christchurch or Canterbury."

Two years on, Smith's death is as fresh as it was two years ago. Wherever you look, Smith can probably be linked to it.

The pride the family has in one of the city's most generous enigmas is palpable. Luckily, each has a more permanent reminder in one way or another. Hilton in the business side of things. Erica in the guide dog she received as a pet while fostering, after it didn't make the grade. Deborah has the house she lives in on Waiheke Island, which stemmed from a love of timber instilled by her Dad.

And Jane Smith has Christchurch. For Cyril Smith had a hand in crafting many aspects of what made the city great.

You just never knew it. 

CYRIL SMITH'S BEQUESTS

City Mission Foundation: $1 million

Sir Gil Simpson first met Smith in the early 1990s, when Smith was just a generous donor, and he the head of a fundraising campaign for the Christchurch City Mission to rebuild its old Hereford St building.

They crossed paths again five years later when Smith donated to the Mission's capital gifts campaign.

Simpson, now chairman of the Mission, went on to grow very fond of the man he considered a friend, and they talked at least once a year.

"It was clear to me that Cyril wasn't interested in handouts, but he was interested in supporting ongoing things. He wanted to support people."

Simpson was floored by the Smiths' "wonderful and generous donation". 

Like other donations, it was invested and the interest used to fund day-to-day operations. To put Smith's gift in perspective, the mission received $360,000 in donations last year.

"It's a living legacy that goes into the every day work of the mission. We think when a person passes on they want their time here to carry on."

Canterbury Medical Research Foundation: $3m

Smith's bequest has allowed the two funding rounds available to emerging researchers since his death to double in size. The first round available to researchers was $690,000, and the second $750,000. It has also allowed them to support research at the Canterbury Charity Hospital. The rest has been put into their capital fund.

"It is a game-changer for an organisation like ours and it's allowed us to substantially lift our reserve. We've been able to really push the boat out," chief executive Kate Russell said.

Kilmarnock Enterprises: $100,000

Kilmarnock never used to be able to accommodate disabled people at school-leaver age. But they can now.

Smith's bequest has been allocated to a new training and development programme for children leaving school. They are working with NZQA to develop courses that will be recognised commercially.

"What we're going to use Cyril's money for is to build a bridge. It's one of our most exciting projects," chairman Gerald van Looy said.

CCS Disability Action Canterbury/ West Coast: $1m

Without Smith's bequest, it's possible some of CCS Disability Action's services may have been cut, due to their operating deficit of nearly $500,000. The money would be spread across their operations and allow them to continue supporting disabled people in Canterbury.

The Order of St John, Christchurch:  $500,000

St John put Smith's money into building their new central city ambulance station. That, and their insurance money enabled the build to get started. However, the hub, which is due to be completed in November, is still $2.5m short of its $5m price tag.

He would be acknowledged in a dedication, perhaps a plaque, when the site is opened

Nurse Maude: $2m

This bequest has been earmarked for children's rooms in the rebuilt and expanded new Nurse Maude Hospice, and will pay for their ongoing funding. In the interim, it has been used to coordinate respite care and support for families with children with very complex health conditions, some of which are life-limiting.

He will be commemorated with a plaque in the new hospice.

Maia Health Foundation: $2m for spinal unit, and $1m for paediatrics

Smith was one of the reasons the Maia Health Foundation was established. He left $3m to the CDHB, $1m for paediatrics and $2m for spinal care, but there was no system set up to deal with bequests of that size. Maia will launch on May 25.

Chief executive Michael Flatman said the money for the spinal unit had not been allocated for a specific project yet, and the paediatrics money may be spent on their $3.2m launch project – a number of enhancements for the children's wards – or other child health projects.

Cholmondeley Children's Home: $3m

There is a central courtyard in the heart of Cholmondeley's new $6m building, featuring a sandpit, climbing log and water features. Its moniker, "secret squirrel's place", was Cyril Smith's family nickname.

Smith's estate paid for half of Cholmondeley's new building, after the old one was irreparably damaged in the earthquakes. But he had given throughout his life too, through his work as a Rotarian, right from the early days of the respite centre.

Spokesman Shane Murdoch said the "incredible donation" allowed them to complete the build debt-free, and for fundraising to focus on their operating costs.

"It was remarkable, it felt like a miracle really."

Child Cancer Foundation: $1m

Smith's bequest will sit across a range of services for child cancer in Christchurch, including funding their support services for another three to five years. It contributed to the recent re-opening of their Family Place, and contributes to their day-to-day operations.

Blind Foundation: $1m to train guide dogs and $2m to the foundation
 
The foundation treats legacies as confidential, so could not comment on the bequest. But Smith's estate left $1m to go towards guide dog training, and $2m to the foundation. At a price tag of $50,000 per trained guide dog, this would ensure 40 dogs got their training. 
 
Paralympic NZ Inc: $1m
 
Paralympics NZ has developed the Cyril Smith Legacy Fund, to assist para-athletes in the Canterbury Region with their training and development. 

Para-athletes can apply for funding three times a year.

Breast Cancer Foundation: $1m

A "major chunk" of the money was recently committed to some major new equipment for Christchurch Hospital – including stereotactic treatment for breast cancer patients whose cancer has spread to the brain, becoming the first NZ hospital to offer Deep Inspiration Breath Hold for patients, and a grant to become part of the ELIMINATE clinical trial. 

"We're not in any rush to spend the rest, it's important to spend it wisely and to look for projects that will make a significant difference to NZ women," chief executive Evangelia Henderson said.

New Zealand Aged Care Association, Canterbury branch: $200,000
 
Cyril's money has been ring-fenced for Canterbury use only, and is exclusively used for education purposes, such as the training and upskilling of staff members. This includes managers, nurses and caregivers.
 
Canterbury Urology Research Trust: $100,000
 
Urology Associates were involved in Smith's care in his later years, and a number of their staff were very fond of him. 
Smith's bequest was split between a number of initiatives — it part-funded the development of a database for the followup of prostate cancer patients after treatment, as well as the collection of data to assess their outcomes.  It was also used in the funding of nurse education to improve the quality of care of urological patients.

 - Stuff

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