Lessie Smithgall, a Gainesville legend whose long life was marked by philanthropy, business savvy and a love for the arts and nature, died at her home Friday, June 25.
The philanthropist, conservationist and co-founder of The Times was 110.
“Her 110 years were lived fully and productively,” said Johnny Vardeman, former editor of The Times. “I can think of few people who meant more to her community and her many, many friends who loved her. She has left them with many cherished memories, and the community is better off because she chose to live here.”
The sharp-witted Lessie Smithgall seemed to defy time, cruising past 100 and ticking off each succeeding year with dignity and grace.
“I’m deaf and I’m blind and I’m lame, but I’ve still got my teeth,” she said in 2019 in one of her last interviews with The Times, as age began to creep up on the Gainesville icon.
Celestia “Lessie” Smithgall, an East Point native, and her husband, the late Charles Smithgall, founded WGGA radio in Gainesville in 1941 and The Times in 1947. The pair owned The Times until it was sold to Gannett in 1981, and Lessie has maintained a relationship in recent years with the paper, now owned by Metro Market Media.
Former Times editor Alma Bowen recalled a friendship dating to 1970, when Bowen came to the paper as lifestyle editor.
“She made friends with everybody,” Bowen said. “We stayed in touch all these years. She contributed to so much, to so many things in Gainesville, especially in the arts. She always wanted the arts to be prominent in our city.”
In their later years, the Smithgalls turned to philanthropy, donating money and land to numerous community causes. The Smithgall Arts Center in Gainesville bears their name, as does the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area in White County. Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, is on 168 acres donated by the Smithgalls.
"I was a city girl but I loved to be out in the woods," Lessie Smithgall said in a 2011 interview.
She and Charles, who died in 2002, were so much the team, but Lessie was a force in her own right.
Smithgall founded The Arts Council in Gainesville. Over the years, she 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.
“She was such a joy to be around,” said Gladys Wyant, who has served as The Arts Council’s executive director for 37 years.
Wyant said she enjoyed Smithgall’s support throughout the years.
During the organization’s early years, Wyant said, “the office was probably on her dining room table.”
Smithgall, a 1933 University of Georgia journalism graduate, also was considered to be one of the founders of the Peabody Awards, though she denied any credit.
While working at WSB in Atlanta, 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, in 2011. "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."
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.
Smithgall’s colorful storytelling was a giant part of her personality.
And she had a few tales about her husband, who she married in 1934 after meeting him at Atlanta’s WGST radio.
To apply for a job writing news copy, “they put me down at this typewriter and told me to write some copy,” she once said. “He sat down next to me and practiced his announcing out loud the whole time I was trying to concentrate on this job interview.
"I could have killed him. I didn't like him for a long time."
She said she was eventually swayed by his charm and wit.
"He was pretty attractive and he endeared himself to me," Smithgall said.
In her memoirs, “I Took the Fork,” along with former Times managing editor Phil Hudgins, she recalled meeting the cast of “Gone With the Wind” at a ball held during the movie’s 1939 premiere in Atlanta.
“They asked me if I wanted to meet Clark Gable,” Smithgall said. “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.”
Hudgins remembered fondly his collaboration with Smithgall on the book. They met every Thursday for about eight months in interviews she referred to as “rendezvous.”
“I had this arrhythmia problem and I told her about it,” he said. “Her comment to me was ‘Now, don’t you conk out on me before you finish this book.’”
“She was the ultimate people person,” Hudgins said. “If there was anybody who didn’t like her, I don’t know who that would be.”
She sent him a card a few years ago suggesting another book.
“Maybe we ought to call this one, ‘I Also Took the Knife and the Spoon,’” Smithgall said.
In the book, she also reflected on her life.
“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.”
“She absolutely made a difference, as much or more than anybody I know,” Hudgins said.