• November 2014

The Blessing of Being a Grateful American

When it comes to counting your blessings, author and publisher David Bruce Smith explains that he started the Grateful American™ Foundation in tribute to his late father, developer and philanthropist Robert H. Smith.

What inspired him to do that?

That is but one of the questions that Jim Basker (shown right), president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, asked Smith when Smith visited the Gilder Lehrman headquarters in New York City last month.

Scroll down to read their Q&A. And click here to listen to their podcast interview on GratefulAmericanTV.com.

Jim Basker: David, tell us where the idea for the Grateful American™ Foundation came from. And what do you plan to do with the project?

David Bruce Smith: My father, Robert H. Smith, always referred to himself as a grateful American because we are a very fortunate family, and he was a great believer in giving back to the community. So I took his sentiment and turned it into a noun. While we aren’t doing the same things that he did at the presidential and historic homes throughout the nation, our goal is to bring American history to life. We are doing it through videos and TV shows, radio shows, books, magazines, and more, with the Grateful American™ Series.

Jim Basker: Your father did amazing things during his life. Tell us more about the things that he accomplished.

David Bruce Smith: Besides being a builder and developer in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC, my father was also a great believer in the power of education. He felt very fortunate to be able to live in a country where he could say and think anything he wanted to. He was a huge fan of the Founding Fathers, especially Abraham Lincoln and the others who fought for the rights we enjoy today. He took tremendous pleasure in traveling to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, Lincoln’s Cottage, and Benjamin Franklin’s home in London. He wanted everyone to see these places and learn from the men and women who created America. To see kids enthusiastic about learning—especially about American history—really spurred him on.

Jim Basker: So to your father, giving back wasn’t just a tribute to the our country’s founders; he also took pride in sharing what he learned with his fellow Americans in the next generation, right?

David Bruce Smith: He did. And so did my grandfather, Charles E. Smith, a Russian immigrant who came to America in 1911. His was a real story of rags to riches, riches to rags, and rags to riches again. Then, at the age of 67, he gave it all up and asked my father to run the company. He told us that he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing work that he felt was even more important to the community. So he focused his time and resources on the Jewish population in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia.

He planned a complex in Rockville for Jewish agencies, including the Hebrew Home for the Aged, the Jewish Social Service Agency, and the Jewish Community Center. He also built the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, and created the Charles E. Smith chair in Judaic studies at George Washington University (GWU). Plus, he held honorary doctorates from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and GWU.

Jim Basker: Wow! Those men from two different generations certainly knew the blessings of being grateful. And you obviously have the same genetic and spiritual ideals, which have trickled down into the third generation of Smiths with your Grateful American™ Foundation. Tell us, what specific things do you hope to accomplish with it?

David Bruce Smith: I have to say that I’m saddened by the statistics that show how many Americans don’t know enough about American history. I believe it stems from history not being taught well in this country. And it seems to be a multigenerational problem that is going to take a while to correct.

The bottom line to me is that you can’t defend your rights as an American if you don’t know what they are—or why they were created in the first place. The most important thing that this Foundation can do is to enhance the nation’s historical literacy—especially for kids.

Jim Basker: At the Gilder Lehrman Institute, we always go back to those things that make America attractive to come to. For instance, how is it that we have freedom of religion? It wasn’t just an accident. And how about the fact that America has so much economic opportunity? Again, it is not an accident. It is what the founders focused on because they wanted to make America a country by the people, for the people.

David Bruce Smith: Those stories—about real people, real struggles, and real events—are what bring history to life. Like the Gilder Lehrman Institute, which is focused on educating teachers and helping them better understand American history so they can teach it better in the classroom, we are focused on encouraging parents and grandparents to talk about history that matters to them with their kids and grandkids when they aren’t in school.

Jim Basker: I agree that it’s teachers, whether in the classroom or out, who make the difference as to whether kids come to love history or not.

David Bruce Smith: My own two kids are a great example of that. My oldest never had a history teacher who brought the stories to life, and as a result, she hates history. But my youngest, my son, was rescued from that problem in 8th grade, when he had an incredible history teacher. Today, he loves the subject, and he is such a patriot. He’s at the Military Academy and hopes to become a Navy Seal. I am not going to say it’s all because he had a great history teacher—but that was certainly part of it.

Jim Basker: It is part of it! And by the way, I think that 8th grade history teacher should be nominated for our History Teacher of the Year Award! And for you, something must have also inspired you to love history—and to become a writer and author of books about historic people and events. Can you tell us some of the most important books you have written, and why you chose those topics?

David Bruce Smith: What attracted me to writing initially was that my grandfather told me very early on that biographies were important. Interestingly, I remember that my 3rd grade reading teacher scolded me for reading too many biographies and not enough fiction. That really stuck with me, for I felt criticized. So I took some of that emotion and started writing. I found it to be very therapeutic, so I decided to dedicate my life to writing books about the people who inspired me, such as my grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, and most recently, John Marshall.

Jim Basker: I thoroughly enjoyed your childrens book about the Chief Justice of the United States. You collaborated on that one with your mom, illustrator Clarice Smith.

David Bruce Smith: We were commissioned by the John Marshall Foundation in Richmond to write that one. And the Abraham Lincoln book was a commission from the National Trust. My mother and I also did a joint project on Tennessee Williams for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. It includes three of his plays, and Michael Cons wrote the introduction, and I wrote an interview between Tennessee Williams and myself. My mother also did beautiful graphite watercolor prints of the plays. It was a wonderful project.

Jim Basker: Do you have any other books on the horizon?

David Bruce Smith: It would be nice to do a childrens book on John Adams, since my mother and I really enjoy writing books for kids. We discovered that it is completely different from any other kind of writing—it is more like a cooking reduction. You have to reduce everything to its simplest form, and if there is anything you don’t understand well enough to explain clearly and simply, you have to throw it out and start again—because if you don’t understand it, kids are definitely not going to understand it.

Jim Basker: And beyond the books, are you planning any other projects or initiatives ?

David Bruce Smith: Monthly, I have the wonderful opportunity to write book reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books. And for the Grateful American™ Foundation, we’ll be writing guidebooks for parents and kids about the presidential and historic homes, and perhaps those childrens books that I mentioned on the Founding Fathers and Mothers.

Jim Basker: I hope one of the future projects will be a partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute! Thank you very much for your time today.

Click here to learn more about David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Foundation.

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