Lessie Smithgall thinks for a long moment, searching her brain for the right memory — not unlike carefully hunting through a jewelry box for just the right gold chain.
When she pulls it out, it’s sparkling.
“You know, it’s hard to look back on 105 years,” she says with a chuckle, sitting next to a crackling fireplace at her Gainesville home, where photos fill the hallway walls and artwork is hung high and low.
She tells a small group gathered in her formal living room about the time Dr. Steadman Sanford, dean of the University of Georgia journalism school from 1921 to 1927 and for whom the football stadium is named, signed her up as a male student.
Being registered as a boy included a couple of things not typical for a girl — going to boys chapel and to football practice.
“I gathered my roommate up and we went to boys chapel,” Lessie says, showcasing her characteristic sass. “But I did not go to football practice.”
Lessie was born April 1, 1911. It was before the Titanic sank and just after the Model T was introduced. She lived through World War I and survived the influenza pandemic of 1918, with her father caring for the family as they all suffered with the illness.
Today, she’s amazed at the tiny pill she can take that will control her blood pressure.
She says advances in medicine rank as one of the greatest accomplishments she’s seen in her 105 years.
Personal highlights have been her family and her travels.
Her parents provided a strong foundation for her until she was “old enough to sass everybody,” she says.
In 1934, she married Charles Smithgall. The two worked together in media, working in Atlanta before founding The Times in 1947.
They had four children. Bay was their eldest, an anthropologist and professor at Tulane University. She died in 1994. Charles III lives in the Atlanta area and owns several Aaron’s rental stores. John also lives in Atlanta and works in real estate. Thurmond is a performing arts consultant in New York. There are six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Lessie often traveled with her husband; London was one of their favorites.
They visited many times, staying at the Stafford Hotel in the middle of town, where she could stroll along the streets and Charles could buy art.
Other trips were more adventurous. She’s traveled down the Nile and the Amazon, been to Rwanda, Singapore, Israel and Japan. Many trips were taken with a group of friends dubbed the “Cabelleros” for Ed Cabell, former director of the theater program at what is now the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
During a visit to Africa, she witnessed more than 100 elephants migrating, with the babies traveling beneath their mothers. And she climbed a mountain with her daughter, Bay, to see gorillas in their natural habitat. Lessie was in her 70s.
She says Bay warned her she wouldn’t be able to make the trek.
Lessie told her “Bay, I’m going to be out here in the morning at 5 o’clock.”
They walked with guides a mile to the mountain and rested. The pace did not suit the guides, who the two women overheard saying in French “the old lady is the problem.”
At 105, her wit is quicker than her steps.
“You know I’m not shy,” she says, referring to her passion for the arts, showcased in letters she’s written to presidents about her desire to see a Secretary of the Arts.
She also wasn’t shy when she met opera singer Placido Domingo.
Everyone who meets Lessie loves her, her friends say. Everyone except Domingo.
Lessie met him once back stage and confessed she was in love with him.
He told her “thank you very much,” which has become a running joke among her friends. A photo of him sits on her piano, autographed with the words “Thank you very much for being in love with me.”
Lessie also founded The Arts Council in Gainesville on her porch in 1970, and served as its first president. She and Charles, along with other community members, have given major matching grants over the years to support The Arts Council’s purchase of the CSX Railroad property and to renovate and expand the old downtown railroad depot, now known as the Smithgall Arts Center.
She also created the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Club, helped create the Georgia Council for the Arts and played a role in starting the Peabody Awards, presented annually in Athens to honor excellence in media. Her published memoir “I Took the Fork” recounts highlights of her long and meaningful life.
She recently helped bring her husband’s vision to life in the Gainesville campus of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy. The garden opened a year ago on 168 acres the couple donated in 2001.
The arts, travel, family — Lessie has stories about them all.
Sharing them on a recent afternoon, she quips to those gathered: “That was before your time,” but she adds that she can say that to just about everybody.