It isn’t every day you turn 107, and that’s no April Fool’s Day gag.
Lessie Smithgall, Gainesville philanthropist and co-founder of The Times, marks her birthday today, this year coinciding with Easter. She and her husband, Charles Smithgall, founded The Times and WGGA radio in Gainesville and built a philanthropic empire that has benefitted North Georgians for decades.
Celestia Bailey was born April 1, 1911, in East Point. A journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, her long career in radio and print journalism allowed her to rub elbows with celebrities like Clark Gable and Walter Cronkite over the years. She is credited with being among the founders of the Peabody Awards program at UGA.
The Smithgalls were married in 1934, and founded WGGA in 1941 and The Times in 1947. They had four children.
Charles Smithgall died in 2002. Portraits of each are proudly displayed in The Times’ Smithgall Conference Room.
The Smithgalls’ philanthropy included donations of land and money that led to The Smithgall Arts Center in Gainesville, Smithgall Woods Conservation Area in White County and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy, in Gainesville. Last year, she earned the Presidential Leadership Award from the University of North Georgia.
Her influence is reflected in one of her favorite quotations inscribed in the plaque that greets visitors to The Times’ front entrance at 345 Green St. It reads: “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.”
In a letter published in The Times last September, she summarized her belief in community journalism.
“Electronic media will not replace the circulation of newspapers,” Mrs. Smithgall wrote. “National and international news is important. Local news can be more important in order to know what’s happening here and if you want to know what your neighbors are doing.
“Is print journalism here to stay? Yes! My prediction is that print journalism will be here for a long time.”
And thankfully, for The Times and for Gainesville, she has been as well.