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Lessie Smithgall still going strong at 100
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One of Lessie Smithgall's favorite stories about her early newspaper days was when she was making telephone calls trying to get people to subscribe to the brand-new Gainesville Daily Times.

She asked one woman "out in the country" if she'd like to take the paper. "I've seen that little paper," the woman told Mrs. Smithgall, "but I don't think it's enough for me. I have to use the paper to start fires and wrap up things and ... "

She didn't finish, but Lessie surmised there were other uses she didn't want to mention.

Neither did she subscribe, but thousands did in the late 1940s as the daily paper Lessie and her husband founded grew in circulation and influence. "That little paper" over the years evolved into a media conglomerate of radio and television stations, cable TV and other newspapers that Lessie's husband, Charlie, acquired or started.

The Smithgalls and their partners sold The Times to Gannett Inc. in 1981. It is now a part of Morris Multimedia.

As Lessie Smithgall celebrates her 100th birthday April 1, she continues making an impact on the community as she and her late husband always have, sharing their blessings in many ways in many different fields with priorities in education, the arts, the environment and her church, First Baptist.

Reluctant for many years to attach their name to any of their gifts, the Smithgalls finally yielded to friends who persuaded them not to be so bashful. Thus, we have Smithgall Woods state park in White County, Smithgall Arts Complex in downtown Gainesville, Smithgall Woodland Garden in Gainesville as part of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, among others.

She perhaps is most proud of the Woodland Garden, which covers more than 180 acres, including the Smithgall homestead, and will be a major treasure for Hall County. Much more of the Smithgalls' philanthropy continues to be anonymous.

Brenau University, where Lessie is a trustee emeritus, has benefitted from its tennis complex, which allowed the school's team to rise to national prominence.

Tennis has been an important part of her life. She played from age 12 to 89, and she and Charlie often played on courts in their backyard into the night. Charlie's nickname for Lessie was "Murve," and he would yell to her, "Serve, Murve."

She believes that constant exercise helped her reach her 100th birthday.

But those who know her also believe it is the active involvement in so many areas of life that has kept her young. For instance, there's the small group of "Caberellos," younger close friends who travel and party together. They spent last weekend in a mountain cabin.

Alma Bowen, former editor of The Times who is a member of the group, said of the many interesting and famous people Lessie has known, she names "Charlie" when asked who was the most interesting. The most significant event in her life, Lessie answers without hesitation, was marrying Charlie Smithgall.

She has rubbed elbows with a lot of luminaries, among them former President Jimmy Carter; broadcaster Walter Cronkite, whom she challenged to a tennis match; Bert Parks, who courted her; numerous governors, congressmen and Robert Shaw, longtime director of the Atlanta Symphony, who was a close friend.

Lessie loves travel. She mentions most often her five safaris to Africa and seeing the mountain gorillas with daughter Bay in Rwanda. Japan, China and trips down the Nile were other highlights of her wanderings.

A Wal-Mart shopper, Lessie looks for bargains wherever she can find them. Said Phil Hudgins, who helped her write her memoir or "story" as she calls it, "Lessie is a person of means, but she never flaunts her money. In fact, she is turned off by self-important people. She buys her cards at the dollar store, and she's always upset if one of her friends got a better deal on something than she did."

As she marks a century in this life, Lessie is as forward-looking as ever. Her vision and hearing are diminished, but she still watches television, news and old movies especially. Caregivers read to her, and she keeps up with local events as well as state, national and world. She educates herself on candidates for office and doesn't waste a vote.

Lessie especially looks forward to watching her six grandchildren grow and develop into successful and good citizens, as did her three sons and daughter.

As she's being interviewed, she asks, "Is anybody interested in all this stuff about me?"

"You've lived an interesting life," she is told.

"I've lived a lot of years; that's what makes me interesting," Lessie replies. "Mine was mostly in Charlie's shadow."

Wrong on both counts, Lessie. It's how you packed so many quality experiences in those 100 years. And you continue to cast a long shadow of yourself in the lives of so many people you have inspired, affected and supported.

Blessings back atcha.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on