News & Politics

Conversations With Papa Charlie: A Memory of Charles E. Smith

“Quiet glimpses into generosity, family ties, and aging with a sense of adventure.”

This collection of vignettes about the author’s grandfather isn’t literature, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Although the subject is one of Washington’s most successful businessmen, the late developer and philanthropist Charles E. Smith, it’s not a biography, either. Whole decades are left out, chronology is shuffled, few fancy names are dropped.

Instead it’s a tribute to a mentor—think Tuesdays With Morrie without the wisdom-of-the-ages slickness—by a man lucky to have experienced that rare gift: regular contact with and guidance from a loved one more than a generation removed.

Papa Charlie’s pieces of advice are decidedly homespun. Some start out sounding like clichés, only to surprise with their blunt quirkiness: “Never be afraid to delve into a subject you know nothing about. You will either discover an aptitude or, at the very worst, you won’t like it.”

The most delightful chapter describes the author’s dismay with his family’s health-food obsession in the 1970s, spurred on by Papa Charlie. “I was an enigma at school,” he writes. “People thought I was strange; there was a rumor that I kept a pinup of Adele Davis in my locker.”

Throughout, there are quiet glimpses into generosity, family ties, and aging with a sense of adventure. And then—who knew?—this unassuming volume turns around and ends on an astonishingly poetic note: a gift from grandfather to grandson to reader.

David Bruce Smith

Capital Books


Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.