Walter E. Smithe, Jr., founder of famed Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design, died this week. He was 86.
Smithe died peacefully Sunday with his wife of 64 years, Florence Flynn Smithe, by his side, his family announced.
Chicago area residents probably know the Itasca-based furniture company best for its imaginative commercials and catchy “Walter E. Smithe, you dream it, we build it” jingle. Smithe’s sons Mark, Tim and Walter joined the company in the 1980s. The younger Walter ‘s daughters Maureen, Meghan, Caitie and Colleen also became executives. The Smithe family was featured prominently in the TV spots.
Caitie Smithe described her grandfather as a “human encyclopedia” who had an endless curiosity for almost any subject. He spent a lot of time reading articles, nonfiction books and was constantly learning, she said.
“He was one of my biggest role models in life and rightfully so,” Caitie Smithe said. “He was just a really extremely caring and compassionate and thoughtful, an extremely intelligent and personable person.”
She said everyone called her grandfather “Papa,” from his grandchildren to people in the company. “He was a grandfather type to everyone,” Caitie Smithe said.
Smithe was born in 1936 to Margaret Slifka and Walter E. Smithe Sr., and grew up on the Northwest Side in Belmont Central. He attended the University of Notre Dame and earned a bachelor ‘s degree in 1958.
After Smithe married Florence in 1958, the newlyweds moved to Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, where he served in the Army, rising to the rank of captain and becoming an expert in the burgeoning field of computers.
Upon leaving the Army, Smithe found success working for GE and IBM, but he was eventually drawn back to the family furniture business. The first iteration of the furniture store was opened by Walter E. Smithe Sr. and Bill Shannahan in 1945 and was named “Smithe & Shannahan.” The store mainly soldappliances and displayed dinette sets, according to the company website.
Caitie Smithe said her grandfather used to love helping out at the store as a kid. One of his favorite jobs was to set up the store’s Christmas train display, she said. He would spend the year thinking of how to set up the display, sparking a lifelong love of model trains.
Smithe joined the company in 1967 and, using his computer skills, pioneered the concept of custom-order furniture in the Chicago area, according to his family. That became the foundation of Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design. The company now has 10 locations across the city and suburbs.
Until recently, he spent weekends at Smithe showrooms, where he engaged with clients and associates. Caitie Smithe said her grandfather would ask about their families and look out for everybody.
“He was a huge presence at Walter E. Smithe,” Caitie Smithe said. “I mean it when I say he was the heart and soul of the company.”
Caitie Smithe said her grandfather had a lot of passions in life. “He loved all things planes, trains and automobiles,” she said, adding that he also loved fishing, nature and food, especially from other cultures.
In 1980, at Loyola University, Smithe earned a master’s degree in anthropology and based his thesis on archeological sites he observed on land he and his wife owned in Ireland.
Smithe volunteered for many years with Habitat for Humanity. He traveled across the United States and Central America to help build houses.
Smithe is survived by his wife, seven children, 16 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and a sister.
A wake will be held at Ryan-Parke funeral home in Park Ridge on Oct. 21, and a funeral Mass will be celebrated the next day at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Park Ridge.