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A century with Lessie Smithgall

Gainesville’s grand lady turns 100

POSTED: March 26, 2011 11:23 p.m.

An interview with Lessie Smithgall

SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Lessie Smithgall waits patiently as video equipment is set up for an interview with Times reporter Melissa Weinman at Smithgall's Gainesville residence. She will turn 100 on April 1.

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Lessie Smithgall keeps an antique clock on the mantle in her living room.

It's large and black with an ivory face that her mother used to oil with a chicken feather dipped in kerosene.

She recently had the 90-year-old clock reworked and said it now keeps time perfectly.

When it chimes, she pauses and smiles.

"I like it not only because I remember it but because it's a sweet sound," Smithgall said.

Celestia Bailey Smithgall is a woman who seems to defy time. On April 1, she will turn 100. But to talk to her, you wouldn't know it.

She has the sharp wit of a much younger woman and has retained the ability to captivate a room.

She seems to have waltzed her way to 100 gracefully, bearing just one false tooth and an elbow replacement as battle scars.

"I've got my hair, I've got my teeth and about half my brain," she joked. "It's really something to get to be 100 years old. I'm so blessed because of so many blessings I have."

Smithgall knows exactly what she wants for her centennial birthday — for people to donate money to help complete her dream, the Smithgall Woodland Garden.

"I would like for the Smithgall Woodland Garden to be further developed," she said, lighting up as she talked about the proposed park on the property surrounding her Gainesville home. "That's really going to be a great attraction. It's what Charlie wanted, too."

Smithgall and her late husband, Charles, already have left a legacy for nature lovers in North Georgia. The couple donated more than 5,600 acres near Helen, known as Smithgall Woods, to the state of Georgia.

Smithgall hopes to leave another gift for the people of Gainesville: a nature preserve within the city limits. The Smithgall Woodland Garden will sit on 185 acres around her home. Plans for the garden include children's playgrounds, walking trails and a botanical garden.

"I was a city girl but I loved to be out in the woods," Smithgall said.

Fundraising is well under way for the garden, which supporters say will be a one-of-kind facility.

Located in the heart of the growing city, the garden will be a destination for those who enjoy botanical gardens.

Strong foundations
Lessie and Charles Smithgall were a dynamic pair.

Always partners, they left their mark on media, art and philanthropy throughout the region.

Their love story, though, did not have a smooth start.

The day after she graduated from the University of Georgia's journalism school in 1933, Smithgall interviewed for a job as a continuity writer at radio station WGST in Atlanta.

"That's where I met Charlie. To apply for the job, they put me down at this typewriter and told me to write some copy. He sat down next to me and practiced his announcing out loud the whole time I was trying to concentrate on this job interview," Smithgall said.

"I could have killed him. I didn't like him for a long time."

Eventually she changed her tune. Charles Smithgall was a charmer and had a sterling sense of humor just like his future wife.

"He was pretty attractive and he endeared himself to me," Smithgall reminisced about their courtship.

"And he didn't do anything bad like practice his announcing when I was trying to concentrate."

Charles and Lessie Smithgall were married on Oct. 27, 1934. The couple went on to work together in radio for WSB in Atlanta, Charles as an announcer and Lessie as a copy writer.

When a radio station and weekly newspaper in Gainesville became available, he purchased the media outlets and moved his family to Hall County. The couple had four children: Bay, now deceased, Charles Jr., John and Thurmond.

"It was exciting to move up here. I'd lived in Atlanta all my life," Smithgall said.

The Smithgalls decided that Gainesville needed a daily newspaper, and founded what was then known as The Gainesville Daily Times. The paper's first edition rolled off the presses on Jan. 26, 1947.

It was modest at first, starting out with just four pages.

"One of the carriers was telling his circulation boss, ‘I asked this lady if she wouldn't take The Times. She said I've seen that little paper, but I just have to have more newspaper than that. I have to wrap things in it, I have to start fires' ... I can still laugh about that," Smithgall said.

The Smithgalls recruited a varsity team to lead the fledgling newspaper.

Charles Smithgall called Sylvan Meyer up on his honeymoon in Florida to become the editor of the paper. Lou Fockele, who was working for another newspaper at the time, was brought in as publisher.

Smithgall recalls her years starting The Times with Charles as some of the best in her life.

"The sign that hangs outside of The Times building reads, ‘mindful of the constitutional principle of the people's right to know, we dedicate this building to the enlightenment and freedom of the people of Northeast Georgia.' And that was his philosophy and mine, too. It was signed by us, Charles and Lessie Smithgall."

A leading lady
In her own right, Lessie is a titan of Georgia's media world.

She is considered to be one of the founders of the Peabody Awards, though she denies any credit.

While working at WSB, Smithgall was talking with the station's general manager Lambdin Kay, who had been tasked with creating an award for the radio industry.

Smithgall, then a recent University of Georgia graduate, offered to introduce Kay to John Drewry, the dean of the journalism school.

"That conversation led to the creation of the Peabody Awards," said Horace Newcombe, director of the Peabody Awards. "One way to think about it is that without Lessie Smithgall's presence in Mr. Kay's office on a coffee break, we might not have had the Peabody awards at the University of Georgia."

The Smithgalls continued to support the Peabody Awards thereafter.

"Later, her other major contribution with her husband was the endowment of the Lambdin Kay chair for the Peabodys, which is the endowed chair at the university that I now hold," Newcombe said. "She is considered one of the leading graduates of the Grady College. Her career with her husband in newspapers and radio is impressive in itself and of course the family's philanthropy throughout the state is massive."

Until recently, Smithgall attended the Peabody Awards in New York every year. One year, she had the opportunity to meet CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite. She even challenged him to a game of tennis, a game she started playing as a teenager and that she played religiously until she was 89.

"I told him ‘I've always admired you so much. For one thing, you've still got such a good head of hair. Then, you're still playing tennis. And you are a good broadcaster,'" Smithgall said of Cronkite.

Cronkite was intrigued by his encounter with Smithgall and joked about their plans publicly.

"He said ‘By the way, this lady has challenged me to a game. She's 89 years old and I understand she's just taken up the game,'" Smithgall said.

When she was at WSB radio, Smithgall encountered another soon-to-be-famous newsman, Douglas Edwards, who preceded Cronkite as the CBS news anchor.

Edwards was a newsman at WSB. When he left to join CBS in New York, he swapped his typewriter for Charles Smithgall's overcoat. Lessie Smithgall used that typewriter for years, including when she wrote a column for The Times three times a week.

The Times began with a staff of 17. As it grew, the Smithgalls moved it to an office on Spring Street, then later, to its current location at 345 Green St.

The Smithgalls sold The Times to Gannett Co. in 1981. Gannett, one of the nation's largest media companies and publisher of USA Today, owned the paper until 2004, when it was acquired by Savannah-based Morris Multimedia.

Charles Smithgall died in 2002.

Close friends and far travels
New York was just one of many places Smithgall visited over the years.

She loved to travel and went all over the world with her family and a group of friends she dubbed "the Cabelleros."

The group, formed out of a love of theater and travel, was named for Ed Cabell, former director of Gainesville State College's theater program.

The arts were very important to Smithgall, who founded The Arts Council in Gainesville. Over the years, she has rubbed elbows with some of the most famous names in the arts. She and Charles were close friends with Robert Shaw, the former director of the Atlanta Symphony, and his wife, Caroline.

She spent time with Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1995.

But it was her trips with the Cabelleros that were especially important to Smithgall.

"Back in the early '80s (Cabell) started a travel group for people who were involved with Theatre Wings, the support organization for the Gainesville Theatre Alliance," said LeTrell Simpson, a member of the travel group. "They were Santa Claus trips. We went in December and actually dressed up in Santa Claus suits. We would leave here knowing we would either visit an orphanage or a facility for the elderly and we would bring Christmas presents and do a little singing concert."

Among Smithgall's favorite trips were a journey to Cairo with the Cabelleros and a safari with her late daughter Bay, an anthropologist.

She and Bay trekked up a mountain in Rwanda and observed mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Simpson lives just a few blocks from Smithgall and still visits her regularly. She said she always leaves Smithgall's home feeling more positive than when she came.

"She has the most wonderful sense of humor and she's just so real," Simpson said. "I think she is a strong woman in the most positive sense of the word."

Smithgall is surrounded by reminders of her 100 years: a hallway jam-packed with family photos of her four children, the tennis courts outside where she spent many happy days and the dainty watch on her wrist that was a gift from her late husband.

The inscription on the back of the watch reads, "To Lessie: 4/1/39." It was a gift for her birthday in 1939. Charles later told her, "I wouldn't put my name on it because if we break up, you can still keep it." They were married for 63 years.

"It still keeps time, too," Smithgall said.

 



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