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19 presidents and 9 dozen candles: Times' matriarch Lessie Smithgall has seen it all
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The Times’ co-founder Lessie Smithgall is the oldest-living graduate of UGA’s Grady school. She is credited with being among the founders of the Peabody Awards program at the University of Georgia. - photo by Scott Rogers

When Lessie Smithgall graduated from the University of Georgia in 1933, Amelia Earhart had just recently completed the first solo, nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by a woman. Now, Smithgall has completed an impressive feat of her own.

The oldest-living graduate of the university and co-founder of The Times, Celestia “Lessie” Smithgall, will turn 108 years old Monday, April 1.

“I’m deaf and I’m blind and I’m lame, but I’ve still got my teeth,” Smithgall said, chuckling in a chair at her Gainesville home. “I imagine it’s good genes.”

She spends most of her time at her home, sitting in a chair with a flowered print, feet propped on a green stool, near the fireplace in her living room. She’s surrounded by ornate trinkets, furniture and rugs. It’s where she’s happy, tucked back in the woods of Gainesville.

The secret to her long life, she says, is healthy living. One of the many ways she does that is by eating arugula each and every night. It’s grown fresh in the garden at her home.

Even though she no longer tends to the garden, she enjoyed taking care of the one she had when she was young.

“I loved radishes, and I kept pulling them up to see if they were growing,” Smithgall said, as two pink roses stood in a vase next to her. “And then I would try to replant them, and I can’t remember if they lived after that.”

While she didn’t get her degree in agriculture at Georgia, she did graduate with a degree in journalism and went on to work at WGST in Atlanta, a radio station where she wrote commercials. It’s also where she met her late husband, Charles.

“I didn’t like Charlie,” she quipped, remembering the day she went to apply for the job. “While I was trying to write some commercial copy to get the job, he came in and sat down. … And while I was trying to write for the job, he read his copy aloud. I could have killed him.”

But Charlie survived and the two got married in 1934. They eventually moved to Gainesville where they founded WGGA in 1941 and The Times in 1947.

“That was a big change for Gainesville to have a daily newspaper,” Smithgall said.

She’s used to change, though.

In her lifetime, she’s seen women gain the right to vote. She’s lived through 19 presidents. She remembers the Star-Spangled Banner being adopted as the national anthem.

And she remembers the first football game ever played at Sanford Stadium in Athens.

“Yale came down and we beat them,” Smithgall said, smiling. “We beat Yale. … I was real impressed.”

That was the day Steadman Sanford, dean of the university’s journalism school from 1921 to 1927 and for whom the football stadium is named, was honored. It’s also the dean who signed her up as a male student at the school, one of Smithgall’s favorite stories to tell.

After getting enrolled correctly, she ended up serving one year as president of the Women’s Student Government Association and was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta, Theta Sigma Phi, Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa.

After graduating, Smithgall became an instrumental part in starting the Peabody Awards, an award for those in electronic media. She encouraged Lambdin Kay, the manager of WSB Radio in Atlanta at the time, to talk to John Drewry, the dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the time, to get things started.

“Without question, the most lasting, significant thing that Lessie did for the University of Georgia and for Grady College, was play a leading role in securing the Peabody Awards on our campus,” Charles Davis, current dean of Grady College, said. “It’s one of the crown jewels of the University of Georgia, and it wouldn’t have happened without Lessie.”

Davis met Smithgall when he first became dean six years ago, and again at a recent event at Brenau University in Gainesville. He said he was impressed at how she interacted at her age with everyone she met. He also picked up on her love for the university and for its journalism school.

“Lessie, in many ways, is symbolic of the history of Grady College,” Davis said. “She almost spans it, and as a result, she’s been able to watch the college grow and prosper.”

She’s also helped Gainesville do the same.

In 1970, she founded The Arts Council and served as its first president. She and her husband continued to support the council, donating to help fund the purchase of the CSX Railroad property and to renovate and expand the old downtown railroad depot, now known as the Smithgall Arts Center.

Smithgall, forever having a passion for writing and poetry, started the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Club and helped start the Georgia Council for the Arts.

And in 2015 she helped bring her husband’s vision to life through a 168-acre donation of land to create the Gainesville campus of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

While she has accomplished much in her 108 years, Smithgall remains humble and happily tucked back in the woods in Gainesville, on the remaining acres of that property she donated, quietly living as the oldest-living graduate of a university she still loves and in a city she couldn’t live without.

“I think I’ve told too much. I think that I’ve made myself seem too important,” Smithgall said before pausing for a moment. “I think it was Yogi Berra that said, ‘It’s alright to brag if it’s true.’”