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Smithgall gets second honorary doctorate
Brenau officials thank matriarch for continued support
Smithgall watches Friday as George Bey, professor of anthropology at Millsaps College, talks via video about the contributions to science made by Smithgall’s late daughter, Elizabeth. - photo by MICHELLE JAMESON


LIsten as Lessie Smithgall thanks Brenau for the honor and tells a story about her daughter Elizabeth ‘Bay’ Smithgall Watts.

As a former journalist, not much gets by Lessie Smithgall. But with a lot of planning and a few tricks, Brenau University administrators were able to pull the wool over her eyes Friday — at least for a little while.

During the university’s autumn trustee board meeting at the Chattahoochee Country Club, school officials presented Smithgall with her second honorary doctorate from the university. She is the sole beneficiary of such an honor.

"And to think I almost didn’t come tonight," Smithgall joked to the crowd.

Surrounded by dozens of friends, family and board members, Smithgall was presented with a honorary doctorate of sciences degree. In 1984, she was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane

"This is something that we’ve been thinking about doing for a long time," said Ed Schrader, Brenau president.

"(Smithgall) and her family have done so much for the arts and music, but people don’t often look at or realize how much she had done for the preservation of natural resources and wildlife."

Among other things, the Smithgall family has helped preserve nature locally with Smithgall Woods, a Georgia State Park. Smithgall family philanthropic efforts also have reached the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and as far as the gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda in Africa.

The 98-year-old became interested in animals and the environment during childhood trips to the Atlanta zoo with her father. However, it was her late daughter, Elizabeth "Bay" Smithgall Watts, who inspired Lessie Smithgall to support a program for graduate students wishing to conduct original "zoo biology and behavioral primatology" research. Her interest grew so much that she decided to get a close-hand look at primates and ventured to Rwanda twice.

"I had the occasion to take (Smithgall) to Africa twice — once when she was 89 and again when she was 91," said Terry L. Maple, an anthropologist and former colleague of Bay Smithgall Watts.

"She was all over the place — we had a blast. She has been a great supporter of my work, and I have enjoyed a friendship with (Smithgall) over the years."

When she isn’t busy traveling, Smithgall is an active supporter of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Africa and a Brenau trustee emeritus. She was the organizer and first chairwoman of the Georgia Sponsors for the Atlanta Symphony, founder of the Gainesville Arts Council and has served as a board of trustees member of the Woodruff Arts Alliance. In 1947, Smithgall and her late husband, Charles Smithgall, founded The Times and retained ownership until selling it in 1981.

"(Smithgall) has experienced the world. She doesn’t just sit around the periphery of it and watch it happen," Schrader said. "The amount of work that she has done for science, the environment and the arts would be a lifetime of work for someone else. If you ever need proof that one person can make a difference in the world, look to Lessie Smithgall."