by Liza Roberts
photographs by Tierney Farrell
If anyone’s memoir could be accurately called Growing up with Raleigh, it would be Smedes York’s. His life and work – in business and in public service – have spanned, and often spurred, a remarkable period of change.
From York’s childhood in a segregated Raleigh to his two terms as mayor; from his role as an N.C. State basketball player to his job as a third-generation property developer and his impact as a volunteer and philanthropist, York has been on the front lines of our city’s transformation from small Southern city to booming capital of growth.
Historian John Lawrence Sharpe’s new book about York’s life is important reading for any student of Raleigh’s history, but its true impact might lie in its honesty. York’s reflections on leadership, legacy, and the influence of fathers on sons put a meaningful human face on a life of influence.
“The idea was not to write a biography, but to reflect on the times, on the things I’ve seen, the changes I’ve seen,” he says, shifting his six-foot-four-and-a-half-inch frame in his office chair one recent morning. He has worked in this same office for 45 years, tucked behind the Rite-Aid in Cameron Village, the landmark shopping center his father built in 1949.
York is a man of few words, and he is modest. He has done far more than “see” the changes he describes. In many cases, he’s made them happen. Like his father before him and his grandfather, too, Smedes York has helped to shape the city we know today.
“Smedes is really an urban thinker,” says Charles Meeker, who as Raleigh mayor from 2001-2011 is credited with sparking the revitalization of downtown. But it’s Meeker who credits York: “In many ways, his interest in downtown is what sparked my interest in it. He’s worked hard.”
Mementos and photographs of York’s milestones fill the walls of his conference room. Many are related to his real-estate business and his time in elected office, but most are personal. One photo shows York and his father with the Olympic torch, which Smedes carried through Raleigh in 1996 on its way to Atlanta. There are pictures from the marathons he’s raced; memorabilia from his basketball days; snapshots with Arnold Palmer and Billy Graham. But most of all, there are pictures of close friends and family, past and present.
There’s his wife Rosemary, whom he married in 1968, and his children: George, who has taken the reins at the family business, and William, currently pursuing a doctorate in cognitive science at Indiana University. There are old friends, like the six who call themselves the “Shamrocks” and have stayed tight since they were 16.
A son and a leader
“I just wanted to be recognized, to contribute, and to be a leader in this community that I grew up in,” York says in the book. “It sounds pretty simple, but that’s what it was.”
It does sound simple, but to read his book – to understand his motivations, his challenges, his doubts and triumphs – is to realize that like anyone’s life, it’s not.
For York, a fierce competitive streak ran deep from an early age – evident in the classroom, on the golf course, basketball court, and football field. So did an entrepreneurial bent that had him cutting his neighbors’ grass with a little yellow mower at 5. York also describes a strong desire to be liked, and a love of teamwork.
But perhaps nothing motivated him as much as his determination to impress the brilliant – and by all accounts mercurial – Willie York.
“For as long as I can remember,” Smedes York writes, “my desire to achieve was to please my father. From the beginning he was such a powerful force in my life that I wanted to prove to him that I could achieve a level of respect on my own terms. For me to fail in his eyes was not even something I could consider.”
Folks who have known York for decades say that’s no surprise. “I’ve never heard him speak about anything at any length without his daddy coming up some way in conversation,” says his old friend Thad Woodard, president and CEO at the N.C. Bankers Association. “His father is his hero.”
Like his father, Woodard says, Smedes York “is far sighted, and gets the job done. Everything he does is of lasting value.”
But where Willie York could be brash and independent, his son has always been a team player. His father told him not to be “a little Willie,” and Smedes wasn’t. But the son also admired a lot of what the father stood for, and the way he went about things.
York even includes in the book a list of 26 of “Willie’s sayings” that stand the test of time: “I don’t want any cheese, I just want to get out of the trap” is one. “Don’t say what the other person can do, just what you can or cannot do.”
York can rattle these off without thinking. But while he respected his father’s skill and wisdom, Smedes tended to approach things differently. It made for some differences of opinion along the way. Still, the results bore out – something his father ultimately recognized. It’s a measure of how much this means to him that York reprints, in full, a letter his father wrote to him after Smedes’s second term as mayor. In careful detail, the elder York lists each of the many ways his son has lived up to his potential and made his father proud.
One of those ways is as a community leader, which is how many people know him best. Robbo Newcomb, president of the board of directors of the YMCA of the Triangle, says the Y has counted on York’s “visionary leadership” for decades. “He sees the big picture, whether that’s for the city, the state, or the Y. He’s about substantive change.”
Another way York has always stood out – which his father also recognized – is as an athlete. It is through sports that York finds some of his most interesting material, metaphor, and life lessons.
Always an athlete
It was as a 16-year-old golfer in 1957 that York took a cross-country road trip with the “Shamrocks,” playing at courses along the way. It’s a trip and a group that comes up frequently in his conversation and in his book, a seminal experience that forged lifelong friendships and opened his eyes to a wider world.
It was as a basketball player from a segregated South that York traveled north in 1960, where he not only played, but socialized for the first time with an African American. It’s an experience that convinced him that his lifelong discomfort with Jim Crow-era laws made sense, and that “reaching out” to build consensus in any situation was the best approach. It was only a matter of months after this experience that Willie York moved to integrate Raleigh schools.
And it was as a player on Everett Cases’s N.C. State basketball team that York witnessed corruption and its impact for the first time. In one of the book’s most riveting passages, York comes face-to-face with the gangster-instigated point-shaving scandal that ultimately shut down Raleigh’s fabled Dixie Classic tournament.
Through it all, York builds the tenets of his life’s philosophy. Be a team player. Play tough, but by the rules. Build consensus. “Always the team is primary,” he writes. “Each of us has a role, but ultimately it is when we work together that it makes a difference… Showing up prepared, no matter what the position is, is most important.”
At 72, York keeps in shape no longer on the basketball court but with Pilates. He has handed the leadership baton of York Properties to his son, George, whose long apprenticeship at the company has prepared him well. And while there’s no question the two are father and son – it’s more than their matching height and identical leather loafers; their modest demeanors and thoughtful smiles give them away – they’re different, too.
“Personality-wise, I’m like my grandfather,” George says. More gut-driven than cerebral, he says; more outgoing than academic. But, like his father before him, George says he has learned what’s important from own dad. The importance of integrity and honesty. How to treat people. How to carry himself.
“I’m proud of what my great-grandfather, grandfather, and dad have accomplished,” George York says. “And I’m proud of the city we’ve had an impact on.”
It’s an inheritance George’s father knows well. And while Smedes York looks back, he also looks forward. At what’s next for his company, his family, and for Raleigh.
“I think the way Raleigh is evolving is very positive,” he says. “It’s amazing what has happened in the last five to seven years. We’ve got a city that’s solid to the core.”
A family legacy
Smedes York’s family first made its mark in Raleigh in 1842 when his maternal great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Aldert Smedes, founded St. Mary’s School. In 1910, his paternal grandfather, C.V. York, founded the family business that built Memorial Auditorium, the Sir Walter Hotel, and the N.C. State Bell Tower. The legacy continued with his father, J. Willie York, who created the Southeast’s first shopping center – Cameron Village – in 1949. As a member of the Raleigh Board of Education in 1960, Willie York made the monumental motion to desegregate the city’s school system.
Smedes York began to fill these sizable shoes in 1977 when he became president of York Properties. That year, he also won election to the City Council and started to make his own civic mark, working to bridge the differences between “pro-growth” and “no-growth” factions then at odds, and to stoke the renewal of downtown. He continued this consensus-building work as mayor.
He went on to grow the family businesses, including not only York Properties, which now leases or manages nearly 3 million square feet of retail space, but also its residential real estate arm, York Simpson Underwood (now Berkshire Hathaway Home Services), and commercial construction business, McDonald-York Building Co. He turned Cameron Village from has-been to cutting-edge and helped create the shopping centers at Mission Valley and StonyBrook in Raleigh, Village Square in Cary, and Meadowmont Village in Chapel Hill, among others.
And he put endless time, energy and resources into more than a dozen nonprofits, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Boys and Girls Clubs, serving along the way as chairman of the Urban Land Institute, the N.C. State Board of Trustees, and the YMCA of the Triangle.
Smedes York expects the book to be published in 2014.