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Lessie Smithgall’s ‘story’ recounts 97 years of seeking the road less traveled

Times co-founder has penned book on her life, love, laughter

POSTED: January 31, 2009 11:57 p.m.
The Times/SCOTT ROGERS

Lessie Smithgall and Phil Hudgins look over their book project and her life story, "I Took the Fork," at Smithgall's Gainesville home. With her husband, Charles Smithgall, the couple founded The Times in 1947, which they owned until 1981.

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Condensing 97 years into 202 pages isn’t easy, but Lessie Smithgall has done it.

She was well into her 96th year when she embarked on a book project with the help of former Times staff member Phil Hudgins.

The result is an enjoyable read that takes you from her birth in East Point, to her growing up years in West End, to her college years in Athens and on the career that would introduce her to the love of her life, Charles Smithgall.

Together, they founded The Times and over the decades, donated ample money and land to the community, including Smithgall Woods Conservation Area and Smithgall Woodland Garden.

But the book doesn’t stop there.

Still, Smithgall doesn’t like calling it a book.

"It’s a story," she said.

The work is entitled, "I Took the Fork," which is a reference to the famous Yogi Berra quote, "When you see a fork in the road, take it." It is also a nod to Smithgall’s favorite poem, "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost.

She downplays the significance of her life story.

"I don’t think people are going to be interested in reading it," she said, adding that she offered to burn the manuscript before it was released into print.

Lessie Smithgall’s life is filled with adventure, fun and, like any full life, its moments of sadness. But while she touches on the sad moments, she doesn’t dwell there.

She has spent time with the famous, such as at the ball honoring the cast of "Gone With the Wind."

"They asked me if I wanted to meet Clark Gable," Smithgall said in an interview with The Times. "I said ‘No, I want to meet Carole Lombard.’ She was so beautiful and so gracious. I was glad I did that. I never did like Clark Gable."

Later in a story she would write for The Atlanta Journal Sunday magazine, she asked some notables if they thought Scarlett O’Hara ever got Rhett Butler back.

"Bill Hartsfield was mayor of Atlanta then. He told me, ‘No, she didn’t deserve him,’" she said.

Her brushes with the famous include attending the Peabody Awards luncheon in New York, where at age 89, she challenged legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite to a tennis match.

"Walter," she said. "I’ve always admired you so much and for three reasons. First, you have a good head of hair. Second, you play tennis. Third, you’re such a good broadcaster."

The match never happened, but it is one of many great stories in the book.

She also talks about a much simpler time in Atlanta, where she was born in 1911.

"When I was a little girl and we lived in West End, the car fare was a nickel and I went shopping by myself," she recalled. "Atlanta was a small place then. I spent all my money and I didn’t have the car fare to get back home and I walked."

Her father, Charles Thomas Bailey, was elected and served on the Atlanta City Council and was chairman of the parks commission.

"My father took us to the zoo and Matt Leonard, who we called Uncle Matt, was the zookeeper and he bring us out there when he fed the lions and that was so exciting. My mother would look at those big horsemeat roasts, and say ‘I’d really like to cook one of those.’ We didn’t think that would taste too good," she said.

Her father was also instrumental in getting the building that houses the present Cyclorama, near Zoo Atlanta in Grant Park.

Her love for wild animals led her to go on an African safari with Terry Maple, the former zoo director.

Her father’s service on the Atlanta City Council was during the mayoral term of Asa Griggs Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Co.

"Bailey," Mayor Candler would say, "why don’t you buy some of my Coca-Cola stock."

But her father, a printing salesman for Foote & Davies, would only buy that company’s shares.

She told Hudgins that one of her primary motivations for writing the book is to tell the story of her late husband, Charles, who died in 2002.

"I think he’d like it," she said when asked what her husband would think about her published work. "The stories about him are so funny."

For Lessie Bailey and Charles Smithgall, it was not love at first sight.

After graduating from journalism school at the University of Georgia, Lessie took a job as a copywriter at Atlanta’s WGST radio.

As she was attempting to write copy, a young announcer, Charles Smithgall, was reading copy aloud. It was getting on her nerves. Later, he would try to ask her out and she rejected his offer.

She was interested in another announcer, Bert Parks, who would later gain national acclaim as longtime host of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.

She tells the story of going to New York on what is called a due bill, when the radio station trades advertising in exchange for hotel accommodations. She was courted by Parks, who was host of a midday show on a New York station.

But she came back to Georgia and fell in love with Smithgall, who would go on to establish a number of radio stations, including Gainesville’s WGGA.

They were married in 1934, and a short time later, they were jointly recruited to the staff of the Journal’s radio station, WSB.

In 1947, the couple founded The Times, which remained in their ownership until 1981, when it was sold to Gannett, one of the nation’s largest media companies and publisher of USA Today. The Times was acquired by Morris Multimedia, a Savannah-based company, in February 2004.

She tells the story of her husband’s nickname for her: Murve. It seems that famed Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley referred to her mother as "Muv."

Charles Smithgall tried that same moniker on his wife, but later changed it to Murve. It came from their love of tennis, where he would say "Serve, Murve." The name stuck, and she is still called that by her children and grandchildren.

The book includes a number of guest writers, including her sons, Charles III, John and Thurmond. It also includes a remembrance of her daughter, Bay, who died of a brain tumor in 1994.

Others, including LeTrell Simpson, Ed Cabell, Johnny Vardeman and Mark Fockele, contributed essays about their experiences with the Smithgalls.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about the book is its voice. Hudgins met with Lessie Smithgall once a week over an eight-month period. To his credit, he captured Mrs. Smithgall’s voice, which is clearly evident in her telling of the events of her life and family.

"I wanted to take the road less traveled — I sought it out," she writes in the closing of her book. "I wanted my life to make a difference. At the same time I wanted to be genuine. I wanted to be Celestia "Lessie" Bailey Smithgall, who is what she is, who kept the faith, who persevered, who did not take herself too seriously, who, for the most part, lived a good life and did a little good along the way.

"I pray I have been that person."



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