“Guided by the constitutional principle of the public’s right to know, we dedicate this building to the continued enlightenment and freedom of the people of North Georgia.”
Those words grace a plaque commemorating the opening of The Times building on July 4, 1970. Lessie Smithgall knew them by heart, and could recite them with ease long after her age had passed the century mark.
She believed in them. Believed in the importance of The Times, the importance of newspapers, the importance of service to community.
Lessie Smithgall’s remarkable life ended Friday. The matriarch of The Times was 110. Hers was an incredible journey and she an incredible woman.
Our community has lost one of its most stalwart supporters, and The Times has lost its matriarch.
Lessie and her husband, Charles, started The Times in 1947, when this part of North Georgia looked nothing like it does today and there was little to suggest there would be enough community support to make a daily newspaper a viable business operation.
There was, and The Times became part of a highly successful media company that would include radio, TV, cable and other newspaper holdings.
Lessie was very much a part of The Times story from the beginning. A 1933 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism, she worked alongside her husband to build the newspaper from the ground up.
Lessie believed in the public’s right to know and a newspaper’s responsibility to the community it served. Community service was as ingrained in her personality as was her love of journalism, and her family’s many charitable efforts put belief into action.
The philanthropic goodwill of the Smithgalls is embedded in much of the fiber of our North Georgia area, from the Smithgall Woods park she and her husband donated to the state, to the Gainesville campus of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, also located on land provided by the family. She was a patron of the arts, as evidenced by the Smithgall Arts Center, a benefactor of charities, a supporter of causes.
And she was a friend of The Times long after its ownership changed hands, a constant and vocal supporter of the local newspaper, where we strive daily to live up to the ideals and legacy left behind by the Smithgalls and their commitment to local journalism.
Those who had the privilege of meeting Lessie, even in her later years, invariably came away with a story to tell. She had a powerful intellect and a journalist’s curiosity, coupled with an incredible sense of humor and a sparkling personality even as the years took a toll on her body.
At the end of, “I Took The Fork,” a book written about her life by Lessie and former Times staff member Phil Hudgins, she said: “I wanted to take the road less traveled — I sought it out. 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.”
She was very much herself and did much more than just a little good.
The world has lost a wonderful, altruistic soul; our community a great friend; this newspaper a member of its extended family.
She was truly an amazing lady, and we are all diminished by her passing, though incredibly blessed by having had the opportunity to share a little of her life’s journey.