James C. Schmidt could tell you all about the history of San Diego. That is, if you could keep him still long enough.
A staunch advocate of everything San Diego, Schmidt was a whirlwind of activity, especially in retirement, leading the charge to end the Coronado Bay Bridge toll and helping launch the Holiday Bowl.
Schmidt, a frequent contributor to TheDaily Transcript's opinion pages, passed away Jan. 5 from cancer of the bile duct at the age of 85.
“Jim was the 'Energizer Bunny,'" said SANDAG executive director Gary Gallegos. "He was relentless, and we benefited from his passion. "He really cared for people and for his community. And, long after he had earned the right to relax, his strong sense of civic responsibility kept him engaged in the public conversation about transportation and many other issues.”
Up until he became ill, Schmidt awoke at 4:30 a.m. almost every day to tackle a full schedule of work and meetings on a variety of civic causes, whether they involved affordable housing, a transportation tax or the Chargers.
He kept an office in La Mesa for 20 years after his retirement.
"He had a tremendous amount of energy, and he had to use it," said his wife of 54 years, Jerrie. "It wasn't work. It was his hobby.
"He liked to be involved. He always had a great vision of what San Diego could be and how to get it there."
Schmidt was born in Peoria, Ill., Sept. 27, 1927. He enlisted in the Navy right out of high school before earning his undergraduate degree from Illinois Wesleyan University and his law degree from the University of Illinois and DePaul University.
He moved to San Diego in 1958, married Jerrie Bond and began a career in the savings and loan industry.
Schmidt was legal counsel with Home Federal Savings & Loan before joining San Diego Federal in 1969 as executive vice president and managing officer. Within 10 years, he helped the company go from four offices and $300 million in assets to 70 offices and more than $2 billion in assets.
In 1978, San Diego Federal was ranked as the most profitable among the country's 100 largest S&L's, and a year later Schmidt was named its president.
When he retired in 1989, the bank, which became known as Great American Savings Bank, consisted of 238 offices in California, Arizona, Washington, Montana and Colorado and controlled $15 billion in assets.
Schmidt also served as California's assistant secretary for business and transportation under Gov. Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s and later worked for the California Toll Bridge Authority and the California State Transportation Board.
He was a member of SANDAG's Toll Bridge Committee, which pushed to end the bridge tolls on the Coronado Bay Bridge.
"Government was in Jim’s blood," Gallegos said. "He helped shape this region."
Schmidt was a founding charter board member of the Holiday Bowl in 1978 and served as a past president and chairman for the 1987 game. He was a director emeritus of the San Diego Sports Council/Hall of Champions.
"He was just a very kind, very generous person," Jerri Schmidt said. "He always wanted to be helpful and help people. That's what gave him a lot of pleasure.
"He was very friendly and extremely outgoing. He'd walk into a room, start shaking hands and he wouldn't leave until he said 'hi' to everyone he knew."
Schmidt began writing monthly columns for TheDaily Transcript in the early 2000s.
"Jim was unapologetically pro-development, pro-business," said Transcript Editor Joe Guerin. "Jim was also proud of the role he played in then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's administration.
"Jim was great to work with. He was passionate about San Diego. He cared about the community and wanted to make it great for the generations to come. His interests were not self-serving. He wanted to serve the community."
Schmidt is survived by his wife, Jerrie; daughters Sandy Crow of Del Mar, Julie Schmidt of San Diego and Suzanne Lathrop of Kirkland, Wash.; grandchildren Michelle and Spencer Crow; and a sister, Marilee White of Seattle.
A celebration of Schmidt's life will be held at the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park on Thursday at 3 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to San Diego Hospice or a charity of your choice.