One of my favorite parts when giving a tour of The Times building is telling visitors about our co-founder Lessie Smithgall.
In the lobby of the office she and her husband built, I tell visitors about how Lessie and Charles Smithgall founded The Times in 1947 and “Mrs. Smithgall is still around at age ...” 107, 108, the numbers kept going up. She still gets her paper and we hear from her from time to time, I’d tell visitors. The numbers stopped Friday at an incredible 110.
The number of birthdays she’s celebrated has been one of the more recent things making her remarkable. But she was remarkable long before that.
She got a degree in journalism in the era when women were expected to be secretaries or maybe nurses, assuming they did anything outside of the home. She wrote a column for the paper and raised four children. What she contributed to this community went far beyond the newspaper. Read this piece by reporter Jeff Gill for a glimpse at her incredible contributions and life.
Working at The Times, I for years heard stories of her wit. Many in the newsroom hoped for the opportunity to meet her. I remember when The Times documented her 100th birthday. When she turned 105, I got the chance to write her story. That big milestone afforded me a visit to her Gainesville home where we sat next to a crackling fire with a couple of her friends who encouraged her to tell stories of her life, like the time the dean of the journalism school — Steadman Sanford, if that names rings a bell — signed her up as a male student, which would require attendance at boys chapel and football practice.
“I gathered my roommate up and we went to boys chapel,” she said then. “But I did not go to football practice.”
There was that characteristic wit. I was privileged just to spend a few hours with her, to attend a birthday celebration once at her home, to meet her on a few more occasions, holding her hand as someone spoke in her ear telling her who it was as her eyesight had long since faded.
Many in this community know her well and call her friend. You can read some of their thoughts in the article on the front page. Her life has touched countless more, and I look forward to hearing the stories as her life is celebrated in the coming days.
At The Times, we had come to believe she may just outlive us all. Her legacy certainly will.
If you’ve walked through the Atlanta Botanical Garden, admiring the waterfall or the hydrangea, her legacy has had an impact on your life. If you’ve fished or hiked at Smithgall Woods, you’ve enjoyed that legacy. If you’ve been to a concert at The Arts Council, you can thank Lessie Smithgall.
If you’ve read these pages in The Times, that can in large part be attributed to her life and devotion. She was passionate about the public’s right to know and the newspaper’s role to enlighten them.
I’ve got her to thank for paving the way for women in journalism, for helping establish this newspaper where I’ve spent my career and for generally making this community I call home a better place.
May we all aspire to be like Lessie, and do “a little good along the way” of our lives.
I’d love to aspire to even half of her accomplishments, and I hope to have at least half as much fun as she seemed to have in her travels, with her friends and in building a life in which she knew she made a difference.
If anyone could make the most of 110 years on this earth, it’s Lessie Smithgall. It seems at least a little strange that the earth is still spinning without her here.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.