Smith attended and was graduated from Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) with a bachelor of business arts degree in 1934. While in one of his college classes, he was seated alphabetically next to Ima Smith (no relation). Preston Smith and Ima Smith married in 1935. They had two children.
Smith became active in the movie theater business in Lubbock as well as real estate enterprises and developed the political name recognition he needed to win election in 1944 to the Texas House of Representatives. A conservative Democrat, Smith served three terms in the House and in 1956 was elected to the Texas Senate. In 1962, the same year that John B. Connally was elected governor, Smith was elected lieutenant governor.
In 1968, when Connally chose not to seek reelection, Smith sought and won the Democratic nomination for the governorship amongst a crowded field of candidates. Smith was known for his polka dot neckties, which he claimed he began wearing in 1962 after Gov. Price Daniel urged Smith to do something to help make himself stand out. Known for his relentless work ethic and corny sense of humor, Smith was the first lieutenant governor to be directly elected to the governorship and the first West Texan to be elected. He was inaugurated as governor on January 16, 1969, and was re-elected to a second term in 1970. During his first term, Smith focused on education issues, including a ten-year pay raise program for teachers. His administration also submitted a state water plan, which failed to pass.
Smith's governorship in his second term was tainted by the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal, which initially focused on charges that state officials profited from certain business deals in exchange for the passage of legislation favored by Houston developer Frank Sharp. Though Smith was never charged with a crime, he was "labeled an unindicted coconspirator," and the scandal grew to such proportions that Texas voters were in an anti-incumbent mood. Smith ran and lost in the 1972 Democratic primary to Dolph Briscoe, Jr. of Uvalde, who would go on to win the general election and be sworn in as Smith's successor in January, 1973. Smith unsuccessfully attempted a comeback in 1978 and retired from politics.
After his political career ended, Smith retired to Lubbock. He remained active in local business and civic affairs and worked as a fundraiser for Texas Tech University. His papers are in the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at the university library. (As governor he had signed into law the legislation that established the Texas Tech University School of Medicine.) In 1981 Gov. William Clements appointed him to the Texas College and University Coordinating Board, where he served as chairman until 1985. Texas Tech University honored Smith by erecting a statue of him in the Administration Building courtyard on the campus.
Smith died from pneumonia at Texas Tech University Medical Center in Lubbock on October 18, 2003, at the age of ninety-one. His wife Ima had died in 1998. He was survived by a son, a daughter, and their respective families. Smith was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. The city of Lubbock honored Smith by renaming its airport the Preston Smith International Airport in 2004.
30° 15.932, -097° 43.635
Texas State Cemetery