Walter E. Smithe Jr., who built a furniture store empire that includes a big-box store on U.S. 30 near the Southlake Mall, died Oct. 9 of natural causes at the age of 86.
Smithe founded Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design, an Itasca-based customer-order furniture retailer that has 10 locations across Chicagoland, including at 4 81st Ave. in Merrillville.
The Smithe family opened the long-running big-box store in Merrillville in 1994. Specializing in leather furniture and custom-made upholstery, it offered more than 1,700 frame styles and 3,000 fabrics.
It was originally located at Hobart at the Crossings and has long been one of the anchors of furniture row, the strip of furniture retailers that includes Ashley Furniture, Bob’s Discount Furniture, Value City Furniture, The RoomPlace, The Great Escape, American Freight Furniture, Furniture Center and Five Star Furniture.
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Smithe was born in Chicago in 1936. He was raised in Chicago, went to Catholic schools, graduated from Notre Dame and earned a master’s degree at Loyola University.
After marrying his neighborhood sweetheart Flo, he served in the U.S. Army at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis and then worked in the then-fledgling field of computers for companies like IBM and General Electric before joining the family appliance business in 1967.
“Walt soon pioneered the concept of custom-order furniture in Chicagoland. This was the foundation of Walter E. Smithe Furniture & Design,” the company said in an obituary. “Walt’s vision and leadership provided the roadmap to success still used by the firm to this day.”
He expanded the business into custom-order furniture and grew it into a chain known throughout Chicagoland, partly because of its television ads.
Smithe’s children and grandchildren are now running the business. He was active in many causes like Habitat for Humanity, even hosting fundraisers for breast cancer research at the Merrillville store. He enjoyed singing folk songs, pursuing his interest in archeology and spending time with family in Ireland.
“Walt is remembered as the ultimate connector. His gregariousness and natural ability to find a common bond with others nourished him and created an enormous community of friends and colleagues,” the company said in an obituary. “Until recently, he spent weekends at the Smithe showrooms, engaging with associates and clients.”
A funeral will take place Saturday at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Park Ridge, Ill.