In Memoriam: CORNELIUS (“NEIL”) SMYTH (1926-2011)

Nov. 04, 2011, 5:23 p.m. (ET)
Before Cornelius (“Neil”) Smyth was in a position to make his Hall of Fame contribution to the Sport he loved, he’d already had a varied and accomplished career. We learn of Neil’s non-table tennis rise to prominence from a “Senior of the Month“ interview he gave Eugene Wilson that appeared in the Jan., 1980 official USTTA magazine. Here are the interesting details.

After attending Yale and then graduating in 1946 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, Smyth, commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, was appointed Assistant Naval Attache in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. There, the more diplomatically valuable for speaking Arabic, he received a Letter of Commendation for his performance of duty. Later, he would be the Spanish-speaking Commanding Officer, Naval Intelligence Division, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

On leaving the military in 1954, Neil became an Internal Auditor for Pan Am, then in 1959 returned to Puerto Rico where, for 11 years, he was Chief Accountant, then Corporate Controller, for the San Juan International Hotel. In 1970, he joined Caesars Palace as Controller and so brought his wife Jeanne (who’d pre-decease him) and their six children to Las Vegas. By 1980 he’d become Caesars’ Senior Vice President—Operations.

Wilson notes some of Smyth’s successes: “Neil has been a pioneer in the adaptation of the latest accounting machines and computers for use in hotels and casinos. He has written numerous articles relative to the accounting side of the hospitality industry, and is a frequent lecturer on hotel and casino topics. He has held all the elective offices from Secretary to Chairman of the Board of the International Association of Hospitality Accountants. He recently co-authored the Seventh Revised Edition of the Uniform System of Accounts for Hotels and serves on the Financial Management Committee of the American Hotel and Motel Association.

Neil also had a sports background—he’d been active at some time or other not only in table tennis but in football, soccer, tennis, and body surfing. But it was at Caesars, with some prodding from Bill Hodge, former President of the Columbus, Ohio Table Tennis Club who’d moved to Vegas, that Neil’s interest in table tennis became a passion.

The short-lived, very controversial USTTPA (Players Association), formed in July, 1975, had as one of its aims the establishment of a U.S. Closed. Smyth, by this time an avid tournament-goer, was very receptive to the idea. But he was worried when some of our leading players, incensed that the ’76 Philadelphia U.S. Open was offering only $1,500 in total prize money, made demands of the organizers, and when they weren’t met not only refused to play but picketed the venue.

Neil sent prospective Closed Tournament Director Bill Hodge as an emissary to the players who were striking at the Open, and urged him to seek assurances from them that they wouldn’t try to sabotage the Caesars Closed if it were held. Naturally, from Caesars’ point of view, that would be unthinkable. Of course with the then staggering sum of $12,500 in prize money being offered by Caesars, the players protesting the Open were only too happy to go to Vegas and behave themselves. Thus was born the U.S. Closed that, thanks to Neil and Bill, thrived at Caesars and other Vegas hotels for three decades.

Understandably, Bill had high praise for our benefactor. “Neil Smyth is not an ordinary man. Those who know him know him to be one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate men alive. He is truly a man whom no one dislikes. Being his kind of a man in the job that he has is, to me, truly incredible. Most men with his power can be hard, cruel, power-wielding, and would not associate with us little people.  Neil is just the opposite.

In appreciation for his successful Spirit of ’76 efforts—just in passing, he was a member of the Sons of the Revolution and the Society of Colonial Wars— Smyth received a special trophy from USTTA President Sol Schiff. Five years later, at the behest of Chairwoman Ruth Guillen, Neil was honored with another trophy at the Santa Monica Western States Open for his outstanding contribution to table tennis.

Neil was never faced with any shortage of trophies—and not only in singles. Among his doubles partners were such well-known players as Tim Boggan, Byng Forsberg, George Hendry, Bill Hodge, Y.C. Lee, and Leon Ruderman. After he and Boggan won the Closed Over 50 Doubles in 1985, by which time Neil was Executive Vice President of Latin American Operations for Caesars World International, and a Board member of the USTTA Foundation, he indefatigably played on, always taking on additional duties, such as being the Director of the United Way and also the Cerebral Palsy Association. Such energy he had.  For three more decades he could be seen in such tournaments as the Meiklejohn National Senior’s, Huntsman World Senior Games, Senior Olympics, and of course the U.S. Open and Closed.

In 1998, he celebrated his 72nd birthday at the 25-sport Nike World Masters Games at Portland, OR. Blew out all the candles on his cake, and damned if his wish didn’t come true. He won a Gold in the Over 70 Mixed Doubles. Ten years later, in the 2008 U.S. Closed he was a finalist in the Over 80’s. Even in his late years, he was right in there.

Also in 1998, the San Diego TTA had a permanent home at the new 4.5 million Balboa Park Center—which suited Neil just fine as he and his wife Jan would retire in San Diego. But not of course from table tennis. Neil still had his enthusiasm and quickly became an SDTTA Board member and was soon inducted into the California Hall of Fame. Two years ago, the SDTTA celebrated  its 50 years of existence, and there Neil had the sad duty of giving a eulogy for the U.S.’s world champion wheelchair player Mike Dempsey. Now it will be someone else’s turn to give the eulogy for Neil.

Of course it was only fitting, since Neil had always supported our U.S. Hall of Fame Banquet, and had served as Toastmaster on occasion, that he himself in 1996 was inducted into that Hall. Fifteen years ago, Bobby Gusikoff said, “After that Caesars Closed, Neil shouldn’t have had to wait 20 years—he shoulda been the first in there, the Board’s unanimous choice.”