Lester and Sue Smith: Devoted to Giving Back

Sue and Lester Smith.

COVER STORY | By Lara Bell –

I first interviewed Lester Smith many years ago on television, and I have been eager to see what he has been up to in the last 10 years since meeting him. Lester and his wife, Sue, prefer to spotlight charities rather than themselves. Their generosity and dedication to the many causes they hold dear is tremendously admirable, and I hope you become as
much of a fan as I am after  hearing their story.

absolutely! Memorial: How did you get started in the oil industry, and what is business like today?

Lester Harold Smith: I grew up in Wharton, where my father was an oilman. I sat on my first well on my 7th birthday, August 16, 1949. There are certain things in life that you never forget – your wedding day, the birth of your child or going to your first dance. For me, sitting on my first well ranks up there with those life-changing moments. I can still remember the sounds and the smells of the oil rig like it was yesterday.

I am an independent oil and gas operator working mainly in West Texas. We have no debt and no investors. I have been called a “wildcatter,” which means we drill by gut and instinct, gambling on finding the earth’s resources that were deposited 260 to 400 million years ago. It’s a lot more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack! But, it’s also more fun.  We have offices in Houston, Midland and Lubbock, as well as offices across the United States that handle the minerals that we own.

Three-time ballroom dance champions Lester and Sue Smith.

AM:  I first remember meeting around 2004 on my television show Wild About Houston at KTBU-TV to discuss the launch of the Honor Your Father Campaign for Prostate Cancer Research. How did you get involved with prostate cancer research?

LHS: As a prostate cancer survivor, I wanted to bring awareness of this silent killer. It is the most common cancer among men, except for skin cancer, and strikes over 200,000 men in the United States annually.  Like all cancers, the key is early detection, and we wanted to raise the profile on this disease and encourage men to get a simple prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and take control of their health.

AM: How long have you and your pretty wife, Sue, been married?

LHS: We have been married 21 years. She is my best friend and the love of my life and has stuck by my side through thick and thin. I adore her.

AM: Is it true you are professional ballroom dancers? When did you both discover that talent? 

LHS: When I was six years old, I performed a dance routine for the first time to the song Camptown Races – and I found a calling. I loved dancing but also performing and being on stage. As a teenager, I loved going to dances and Cotillions, but it wasn’t until my wedding that I took dancing seriously.

In preparation for our wedding and honeymoon, Sue and I took dancing lessons, and we were both hooked. On our honeymoon in Vienna, we danced at The Winter Palace, and everyone wanted to know who the gorgeous woman in the red gown was. They thought Sue was royalty! Well, she’s certainly Queen in my book!

After our honeymoon, we decided to train as competitive dancers, and for nine years, we competed around the United States. We trained for up to four hours daily. I won my first competition just weeks after successful prostate cancer surgery – the first of two National Latin Dance Championships. In addition to competing with Sue in the Latin category, I also competed in Ballroom Dance with a wonderful partner and instructor, Vika Belova. We were three-time ballroom dance champions.

Lester and Sue Smith with Dr. David Poplack at the dedication of the Lester and Sue Smith Clinic at Texas Children’s Cancer Center.

AM: You and your wife donate so much money to worthy organizations in Houston. In fact, you are the single largest donor to cancer causes in Houston at over $100 million in funding. What is the driving force behind your philanthropy? 

LHS: We live by the motto, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We have certainly been blessed with abundant resources – the result of hard work for decades and decades. We are motivated to give especially in the areas of health care and medical research, because it is so vital to everyone. We are fortunate to live in a time when medical breakthroughs are occurring daily and people are living longer, fuller lives. Everyone deserves the gift of good health. Through our philanthropy, we try to focus on that, because if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.

AM: You recently had a double lung transplant. How you are doing since that procedure?

LHS: I had pulmonary fibrosis caused by smoking and acid reflux that for years caused scarring and inflammation of my lungs. I was very sick and was put on the donor list to wait for a good match. In August 2016, I underwent a grueling surgery to replace my lungs and spent over 100 days in the hospital. Just prior to the double lung transplant, I had two other surgeries, so I was in pretty bad shape going in. But when you get the call that there is a good match, you take your chances. It was a very difficult time for my family and me.

Today, I am doing great! I have to regain the use of many of my muscles, but I am walking, working out 12 to 14 hours a week with a trainer and doing physical therapy daily. I am so grateful that someone signed a donor card, and I was blessed to have these new lungs. I encourage everyone to sign up to be an organ donor!

Dr. Paul Klotman, Sue and Lester Smith, Dr. David Sugarbaker, Ora Gibson, Carol Sawyer and Robin Young-Ellis at the 2016 Magic of Motown check presentation benefiting The Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine. Photo by Wilson Parish.

AM: In addition, you are a two-time cancer survivor. How have these challenges influenced the way you live your life and give back to the community?

LHS: When you are faced with serious illness, nothing else matters but to try and get well. I have faced my own mortality more than once, and there is no doubt that it has caused me to take stock of what is really important. Sure, it’s great to have resources, but it’s time that is the most valuable – time to spend with those you love. I believe that everyone has something to give – their time, talent and treasure. Maybe you can’t write a big check, but you can write a small one. Maybe you can’t build a hospital or clinic, but you can volunteer there. Maybe you bring some light into an otherwise dark place for someone suffering. This is something anyone can do – and the impact is far reaching.

AM: What is one thing Memorialites might be surprised to know about you?

LHS: You have never met anyone with a stronger will to accomplish anything – and this is applies to all aspects of my life.  My dance instructor said I was “strong like a Russian bull,” and it’s true. I apply the same discipline of resilience and grit to all parts of my life.  I never give up – it’s in my DNA.