By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

The final flight

News-Register file photoDuring a 1999 visit to Evergreen Air Center’s Doole Hanger, named for a former 747 pilot and Evergreen board member, Del Smith envisions the future of the company he founded.
News-Register file photo
During a 1999 visit to Evergreen Air Center’s Doole Hanger, named for a former 747 pilot and Evergreen board member, Del Smith envisions the future of the company he founded.
News-Register file photoDel Smith enjoys a flight to Marana, Arizona, in 1999. He loved aviation his entire life and flew all over the world in both fixed wing and rotary aircraft.
News-Register file photo
Del Smith enjoys a flight to Marana, Arizona, in 1999. He loved aviation his entire life and flew all over the world in both fixed wing and rotary aircraft.

Smith, whose for-profit companies stalled out in recent years, but whose non-profit museums continue to soar, was a McMinnville enigma.

Known as “Del Smith” to most people when they were talking about him, and as “Mr. Smith” to employees and those  talking to him, he was a tough businessman with a panoramic vision. He led by example.

He always had a soft heart for those in need, be they young people who yearned for someone to believe in them, fellow miliary veterans, or residents of Third World countries desperate for humanitarian aid. Time and again, he made contributions to aviation or education, to his church or his community. And he praised company personnel, often referring to them as “family.”

Yet he cut staff mercilessly, sometimes on what seemed like a whim. He was legendary for letting bills go unpaid, stiffing the lowly and lofty alike. And he paid his pilots less than any other pilots in the industry, year after year. 

As a result, he was both revered and reviled, respected and feared, ridiculed and acclaimed.

Smith died Friday, Nov. 7, at the age 84. His death followed a period of sharply declining health.

Viewing is scheduled for noon to 7 p.m. on both Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 12-13, at Macy & Son Funeral Directors, 135 N.E. Evans St. in McMinnville. A public gathering and memorial service are scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Evergreen Aviation Museum.

“I guess I want to be remembered as a spirited organizer with a good work ethic,” Smith told the News-Register in an extended interview in 1999.

Among his greatest accomplishments, he listed things his company had done: reforesting Oregon slopes by scattering seeds from a helicopter; eradicating the black fly in Africa; helping with efforts to end starvation in Pakistan; putting out 700 oil fires in Kuwait; finishing the Alaska pipeline ahead of schedule; eradicating heroin poppies in Mexico.

“If I had 10 lives, I’d do a lot more — real estate, or it would’ve been fun to have an ocean fleet,” he said.

After serving as a paratrooper and Air Force officer, Smith learned to fly helicopters in 1955. Rotary technology was still new then, but he predicted the craft’s potential for commercial use.

He co-founded a helicopter business in 1960, at the age of 30. He named the company “Evergreen” because it symbolized the Northwest and fit with the logging industry, a major client. He said he later learned that Asians associate the world “evergreen” with peace and prosperity — a bonus.

Seeking a coveted airline operating certificate, Smith in 1975 acquired the tiny Johnson Flying Service of Montana, merged it with Intermountain Airlines, and acquired a large aircraft maintenance and storage facility in Arizona. Those transactions allegedly drew Evergreen into clandestine business with the Central Intelligence Agency, a charge denied by Smith when it became the subject of local, regional and national media reports.

Smith, now operating Evergreen International Airlines, moved from the pilot’s seat to the CEO’s desk. In the 1980s, he founded the independent Valley Community Bank, now a branch of Columbia River Bank.

“Leadership by example is the best form,” he said in that 1999 interview, one of the few he ever granted.

Queried in conjunction with the story growing out of that interview, employees told the News-Register they admired Smith’s work ethic, with high expectations, little tolerance for error and no tolerance at all for slacking off. Working for the company could be stressful, they said, but also rewarding, featuring plenty of opportunities for learning and growth.

“I believe in hard work and honesty,” Smith said. “Life is a gift. You owe God your best performance.”

Over five decades, he built McMinnville-based Evergreen International Aviation into the most diversified aviation corporation in the world, one that pioneered uses for a variety of aircraft and developed equipment and protocols that are now industry standards. The company worked with military and governmental entities, as well as commercial and nonprofit ones.

Allegations about covert dealings with the CIA were a major irritant for Smith.

“It bothers the hell out of me that people have the wrong impression,” he said, addressing rumors about the nature of some of his company’s government contracts. “We’ve been helping. We’ve done our patriotic duty, whether it’s fighting the dope battle or helping with an operation to end blindness. We just strive to work hard and be honest.”

People joked, some bitterly, that Smith did whatever he wanted, laws, regulations, contracts and critics be damned. But many admired him for dreaming bigger than others dared and often turning those dreams into reality.

He was a taskmaster, a demanding boss who called his staff together every morning at 7 and expected them to be as dedicated as he was. Yet he downplayed his dominating, larger-than-life role, calling himself just “one of the team.”

“Evergreen works as a family and a team,” he told the News-Register when he received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in the late ‘90s.

The award, given to one person each year, honors aviation achievements, leadership, integrity and humanitarianism.

“It’s not just an honor for me. It needs to be shared by many,” he said, adding one of his signature quotes: “Nobody’s as smart as everybody.”

Yet he took his leadership role seriously, making sure to know employees personally and visit them as often as he could.

In 1999, for instance, he spent more than one-third of the year on the road — flying his Lear jet to his Arizona maintenance base just for the day sometimes, and making dozens of longer trips to New York, Washington, D.C., Hong Kong, and cities in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

People from all those places came to see him as well. There’s no denying that Smith helped make McMinnville an international destination, first with his aviation companies, which worked all over the world, and later with his air and space museums.

“He helped put us on the ‘map’ in a very positive way,” said Ed Gormley, who served as McMinnville mayor for 25 years.

Before he became mayor, Gormley filled the seat once held by Smith on the McMinnville City Council. Later, Smith donated most of the trips awarded as the grand prize at the annual Mayor’s Charity Ball, Gormley said.

“I can’t say enough nice things about his generosity. He was generous in so many quiet ways,” Gormley said.

The former mayor also noted how many local jobs were created by Evergreen over the years. “Despite the problems that brought on the closing of the company his handprints and life will be part of McMinnville, Yamhill County and Oregon for decades to come,” he said.

Smith’s companies started to crumble in 2010. Facing major business challenges, Smith began selling off assets, including the helicopter division in a $250 million sale to Erickson Air-Crane, now Erickson Inc., in 2013. Smith told the News-Register he planned to use the money to reinvigorate his air cargo company, Evergreen International Airlines, but the company was $300 million in debt at the time and could not, in the end, be saved.

Smith closed the airline in November of 2013. The parent company and several of its remaining arms declared bankruptcy on New Year’s Eve that year, and in June of this year, a federal judge approved the sale of the company’s remaining assets.

Most of Evergreen’s former corporate headquarters buildings adjacent to the McMinnville Airport now sit empty, with “For Sale” signs out front.

For many years, Smith and his eldest son, the late Michael King Smith, collected historic aircraft and displayed them at company headquarters and flying events.

After their 1991 acquisition of the giant HK-1 Flying Boat — built by Howard Hughes, whom some have compared to Smith — the Smiths made plans for a major museum and educational facility.

Mike Smith died in a car crash in 1995. But Del Smith fulfilled his son’s dream posthumously, opening the Evergreen Air Museum and Michael King Smith Educational Institute in 2001.

The complex now includes the air museum; its twin, a space museum; a 3-D theater; the Wings & Waves Waterpark; a non-denominational chapel; Boy Scout facilities; a walking path; and a flying field for radio-controlled aircraft.

Volunteers, many of them veterans, have helped restore planes and set up exhibits. They act as docents, telling stories about the aircraft and related items in the museums.

The facilities also serve as learning spaces for hundreds of students each year, both visitors and youngsters from McMinnville schools: children who learn about physics and other science topics at special workshops, study wave power in the water park or show off science fair projects; high school students who discover history first hand in living history programs featuring military veterans.

In addition, two McMinnville High School programs are based in the space museum: the SOAR television production class and the Engineering and Aerospace Science Academy.

Smith also provided all sorts of extra opportunities for McMinnville High and Linfield College students, from flying the robotics team to a national competition to letting them experience a live feed from the International Space Station to hiring students for summer jobs or providing internships.

“The programs and opportunities he’s created for learners will be long lasting,” said Maryalice Russell, superintendent of the McMinnville School District. 

“We appreciate all he’s done for children, the opportunities to experience science and history and to think of things they might not have thought of,” she said. “He was a great leader for children.”

Linfield President Thomas Hellie added, in a message about Smith, a trustee emeritus, to fellow trustees, “He will be missed.”

Smith was inducted into the Linfield Athletic Hall of Fame in recognition of his decades of financial support for Linfield athletics. He also provided transportation, flying football teams to games in Spokane, Washington, other places and taking baseball teams to Marana, Arizona, for weeklong training camps, said Ad Rutschman, longtime Linfield football and baseball coach.

“He was a very special man,” said Rutschman, who also rode with Evergreen pilots on many recruiting trips. “I never asked him for anything. Everything he did, he initiated and volunteered.”

Smith made many other contributions to the area, helping fill needs such as helping San Martin de Porres Catholic Mission remain open in Dayton. He also made a difference to numerous individuals, changing their lives quietly but profoundly.

Tom Davis was a 16-year-old dishwasher at the McMinnville Sambo’s restaurant when he was noticed by Smith. “He knew I had dyslexia, but he said, ‘Don’t worry; I’ll put you under my wing and you will be a winner,’” Davis recalled.

Under his mentor’s guidance, Davis earned a basic driver’s license, then a commercial license. Then Smith handed him the keys to an Evergreen pickup with a trailer hooked to its rear and told him to tow a helicopter to Alabama.

“I’d never been out of Oregon,” Davis said, “and I was scared to death.” But he found Smith’s confidence inspiring.

He not only made that trip, but he went on to make many more, both for the company and family. That included driving an auto racing team all over the country for Mark Smith, Del’s youngest son. Davis also kept Smith’s personal vehicles clean and sparkling.

Last year, Davis had an old police car painted with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education logo so he could spread an anti-drug message at local parades and events. He included a homage to his mentor on the car.

Over the past few months, Davis frequently picked up Smith at his home and drove him to lunch. “He loved to go through the drive-through at McDonald’s,” said Davis, who considered Smith a father figure.

They also drove around the Evergreen museum campus, so Smith could check that everything was going according to plan. “That museum was his dream, and Michael’s dream,” Davis said.

They would drive around each building several times, he said, then stop for lunch at the space museum or drop in at the chapel for a few moments of reflection.

He also drove Smith to visits at New Horizons Church with Pastor Galen Gingerich.

Davis was expecting to pick Smith up on Sunday, Nov. 9, for a tour of the museum complex and trip to church when he received news of his mentor’s Friday death. “I was devastated,” he said.

Gingerich was saddened to see Smith’s seat empty Sunday. But he said, “I rejoice that he’s in a good place now. He’s with God in a very real way.”

The two met in the 1970s, when Gingerich joined as Evergreen’s farm manager. He said Smith, a lifelong Catholic, was supportive when he decided to become a Protestant minister.

They remained friends, and in recent years, had become close friends, Gingerich said.

“Up to his very last days, he was a man of perpetual vision, always desiring to move toward excellence,” Gingerich said. “He really helped make our community be a better place.”

Smith’s passion was inspiring, and so was his “genuine, sincere faith,” the pastor said.

Although many people didn’t realize it, the pastor said, Smith helped many, many people with moral and financial support. Until the very end of his life, he said, Smith wanted to help others, though he never boasted about it.

In recent years, Gingerich said, he saw his friend’s faith grow.

“Particularly in the last months of his life,” the pastor said. “As his physical strength waned, he had increased awareness that it’s more important than anything to live like Jesus.

“In recent months that came to the surface. It was very, very real.”

Gingerich said, “He loved being in the presence of God. His greatest joy was to feel the power of God in his life.”



I'm very thankful for the professional and personal influence Mr. Smith had on my life. He taught me about work ethic, thinking "big," setting a high bar of performance, and the idea that "if I think I can - I can." These lessons have truly shaped who I am! He saw great value in teaching young people these ideas and giving them opportunities to prove themselves. Thank you Mr. Smith.

I Am Darren Wilson

He played the game well.


Thank you for this article. I think it was very well stated and true. Del was a huge part of my family's lives for many years and I can attest that this is a true portrait of him. I wish the best to his family and those that were close to him. I am very thankful that the prayers myself and others sent up for Del and his relationship with our Lord were witnessed.

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