Lessie Smithgall, journalist, philanthropist, turns 110

Lessie Smithgall wrote for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine and with her husband, Charles Smithgall, founded the Gainesville Times. They met when they were both working at radio station WGST. Courtesy of the Smithgall family

Credit: Courtesy family

Credit: Courtesy family

Lessie Smithgall wrote for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine and with her husband, Charles Smithgall, founded the Gainesville Times. They met when they were both working at radio station WGST. Courtesy of the Smithgall family

Lessie Smithgall, the oldest living graduate of the University of Georgia, said that the key to living well can be summed up in three rules: eat right, exercise, and take care of your health.

Her son, Charles A. Smithgall III, said an alternative prescription, judging from his mother’s regimen, could be “a banana every morning and wine every night.”

Ms. Smithgall didn’t mention the wine. She also doesn’t recommend smoking cigarettes, a habit she took up at age 68, “because they tasted so good.” Showing her usual capacity for self-control, she quit five years later.

Whether it’s bananas, exercise or the fresh arugula grown in her garden, Ms. Smithgall must be doing something right, since she will celebrate her 110th birthday today.

Throughout the week some 18 family members will come in shifts to visit the matriarch of the clan at her Gainesville home, on 17 acres of woods right on the edge of the city.

It’s part of a 185-acre parcel of land that she and her late husband, media entrepreneur Charles Smithgall Jr., provided to become the Atlanta Botanical Garden Gainesville.

In a brief interview on Tuesday, Smithgall said the benefits of living in that setting are “having such a good time with nature, the flowers, the woods, the change of (seasons).”

She can’t walk in those woods, nor see them very well, said her son, who she calls Charlsie, but that doesn’t diminish her spirit. “She is the world’s greatest optimist,” said the younger Smithgall. “She can’t see good, she can’t hear good, she has to have help getting out of bed, but she’s happy. I drive every Sunday to see her, and I tease her and tell her stories, and I laugh all the way home. It does me more good than it does her.”

In an interview a few years ago with the Gainesville Times, a newspaper that she and her husband founded in 1947, she put it this way: “I’m deaf, and I’m blind, and I’m lame, but I’ve still got my teeth.”

Lessie Smithgall, the oldest living University of Georgia graduate, a journalist and a philanthropist and the widow of Charles Smithgall, turns 110 on April 1. Courtesy of Tracy Page

Credit: Katherine Tracy Page

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Credit: Katherine Tracy Page

Born in 1911, Celestia “Lessie” Bailey survived the Spanish flu, which infected her whole family. She attended Girls High, and the University of Georgia, graduating from the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism in 1933.

When she was applying for a job as a copywriter at Georgia Tech’s WGST radio station, she was interrupted by one of their announcers rehearsing a commercial break by reciting the advertising copy out loud.

“She finally told him to shut up,” said Charlsie Smithgall. “That’s how she met my father.”

They were married in 1934 and both went to work for the 50,000-watt clear channel radio station, WSB.

During her career at WSB, she had a hand in the creation of the Peabody Awards, broadcasting’s most prestigious honor.

In her autobiography, “I Took the Fork,” (named after a malaprop from her favorite baseball player, Yogi Berra), she reminisces about flirting with Walter Cronkite at one of the Peabody Award ceremonies in the late ‘90s, where she complimented the newsman on his fine head of hair, his broadcasting skills and the fact that he played tennis.

Cronkite told the luncheon audience the next day that an 89-year-old woman had challenged him to a game of tennis. Later he joked with her: “You know I’m married, don’t you?” and she responded, “Yes, I am too.”

As Charles Smithgall Jr. built a collection of newspapers, radio and television stations, he also acquired thousands of acres in North Georgia, reclaiming White County land that had been stripped during the gold rush.

He rehabilitated the land that would become the Smithgall Woods, a 5,600-acre state park with pristine hiking trails and trout streams. On the edge of that property is a Smithgall retreat called Whitewater where Lessie would gather once a year with a group of traveling companions called the Caballeros, though this annual reunion, and birthday parties, have been postponed during the pandemic.

“I’m so sorry we can’t gather for her 110th,” said LeTrell Simpson, a Gainesville neighbor, a friend and a Cabellero. “She was a great travel companion. She never wanted exceptional treatment, even though she was the oldest one in the group, and when we stopped in the markets she wanted to make sure you didn’t get a better deal than she did.”

Lessie Smithgall’s birthday will be honored in different ways. Son Thurmond Smithgall, based in Manhattan, will take over the cooking duties in her kitchen. Sons Charles and John are visiting from Atlanta. Six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren will also make the trip to Gainesville to see the lady they call “Murve.”

Her daughter Elizabeth “Bay” Smithgall Watts, an anthropologist at Tulane University, died in 1994 of a brain tumor. Many years ago Lessie accompanied her daughter to see the apes of Rwanda during a research trip.

Advertising entrepreneur Billy Corey plans to put a picture of Lessie Smithgall up in LED lights on his 300-foot smokestack downtown. “She deserves a little recognition,” he said.

Her executive assistant, Lianne Daniel, will bring her purple tulips, a reference to the tulip centerpieces that were part of her 100th birthday celebration.

“And for 10 days leading up to her 110th I’ve been giving her a different funny birthday card every day,” said Daniel. “She likes funny birthday cards.”

Mildred Fockele, director of the botanical garden in Gainesville, will bring aromatic soaps. Lessie, despite the loss of her other senses, can still enjoy a sweet-smelling soap.

“I have a 19-year-old daughter, and I tell my daughter that Lessie is her role model,” said Fockele, “from being a nature lover to being an incredibly positive person.”

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