Lessie Smithgall, who with her late husband, Charles, created a media empire that included the establishment of The Times, was honored Wednesday as the North Georgia Community Foundation’s Philanthropist of the Year.
The award was presented during a luncheon at the Chattahoochee Country Club.
LeTrell Simpson, who presented the award, recalled the Smithgalls’ many philanthropic causes, ranging from the 5,500-acre Smithgall Woods conservation area on Dukes Creek in White County, their gifts to their respective alma maters — Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia — and their most recent major gift of their 185-acre homestead for the Smithgall Woodland Garden.
In addition, they have been major patrons of the arts, ranging from The Arts Council in Gainesville to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Smithgall, a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism, was among the women pioneers in broadcasting at WSB Radio in Atlanta, where her husband was a popular morning show host.
As an assistant to station manager Lamdin Kay, she was involved in the launch of the prestigious Peabody Awards, which are presented annually for works in broadcasting.
In accepting the award, Smithgall offered a bit of humorous philosophy.
"As I live my life and have to make decisions, I think about Yogi Berra, who said: ‘If there’s a fork in the road, take it,’" Smithgall said. "That’s what I’ve been doing."
Smithgall paid tribute to her late husband, Charles, who died in 2002.
"It has been overwhelming and touching to have so many of you come," she said. "In all these endeavors we’ve been talking about today, I was Charlie’s partner. I wish he could be here today."
Smithgall became the third recipient of the award, which is presented annually by the foundation. Previous honorees include James A. "Jim" Walters and Philip and Mary Hart Wilheit.
Smithgall also was named the first recipient of the Fockele Fellows Award, which is named in memory of former Times publisher Lou Fockele and his wife, Jean, who were instrumental in the formation of the foundation.
The North Georgia Community Foundation began in 1985 with startup funds from the Gannett Foundation and from local residents. The foundation, which serves 15 counties in Northeast Georgia, now has assets of $40 million.