At 102, benefactor Lessie Smithgall celebrates groundbreaking of ‘a natural wonder’

Lessie Smithgall, 102, raises a spade of dirt at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for Smithgall Woodland Garden, being created on 165 rolling Gainesville acres that she and her late husband Charles donated to the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2002.

Credit: Travis Massey

Credit: Travis Massey

Lessie Smithgall, 102, raises a spade of dirt at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for Smithgall Woodland Garden, being created on 165 rolling Gainesville acres that she and her late husband Charles donated to the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2002.

Fundraisers from the Atlanta Botanical Garden were anxious for the recession to end so they finally could get earth turning for Smithgall Woodland Garden on the 168 wild and wooded Gainesville acres that Lessie Smithgall and her husband Charles donated in 2002.

Charles, a media magnate, environmentalist and philanthropist, died the same year the couple deeded the rolling land inside the city’s limits, but Lessie is now 102. Botanical Garden leaders wanted her to witness the project’s delayed launch while she was still alive and well.

And on Wednesday afternoon, Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall was very much present at the groundbreaking of Smithgall Woodland Garden’s $21 million first phase. She smiled often as friends and well-wishers swarmed around her, shaded by towering hardwoods under which signs were planted that pointed to features that will be added in coming months.

We stole a few moments with the garden’s benefactor …

Q: What were the wishes you and your husband conveyed to the Atlanta Botanical Garden when you donated the land?

A: I asked that they never commercialize it. Keeping it as natural as possible, that was the whole idea. Because my husband wanted to have a place where city folk could come and enjoy it. And not too far away — they could even get here after work. Folks from all over the area, maybe abroad, (could come here for) walking and hiking the long trails and for picnicking, as long as they picked up their trash.

Q: Does it make you feel good that for years to come your name will be on this place of retreat?

A: No, I wish it weren't! There are several things around town named for my husband and me, and I think maybe it should be named for other people.

Q: You don’t want the fame so much?

A: No.

Q: You just want people to enjoy the woods?

A: Oh, I sure do, and Charlie did, too. It was his dream that it always be a natural wonder.

Q: You’ve been asked often what is the secret to living to 100. How about 102?

A: I guess I kept myself in good shape. I played tennis until I was 89 and wish I could still play.

Q: Does it help that you have a positive outlook on life?

A: Well, maybe so. I have a nice family, four children, they’re all grown and have done well. (As a memorial to Lessie and Charles’ daughter Bay, who died of a brain tumor in 1994, as well as a tribute to a magnolia tree native to Georgia, the Botanical Garden named the garden’s still-to-be-built curving entry road “Sweetbay Drive.”)

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