Lessie Smithgall, 110, dies. Made a lasting mark on education, arts, conservation

Lessie Smithgall donated millions of dollars to arts, education and conservation in Georgia.

Credit: Photo: courtesy of the family

Credit: Photo: courtesy of the family

Lessie Smithgall donated millions of dollars to arts, education and conservation in Georgia.

Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall wrote in her memoirs she wanted her life to make a difference.

She died at 110 on June 25, having donated more than $30 million to Georgia arts, education, healthcare, and conservation. She was instrumental in founding The Peabody Awards. She was the oldest living member of Phi Beta Kappa, and believed to be the oldest living graduate of the University of Georgia. Upon her death, her home and outbuildings became part of the 186 acres she had already donated for the Atlanta Botanical Garden Smithgall Woodland Legacy in Gainesville, Georgia.

But the grit, humility, and humor packed into her diminutive frame were the most impressive, say those who knew her best. She sent handwritten notes and birthday cards, took homegrown roses to the beauty shop, and treasured weekly phone calls to friends.

“Her generosity could easily overshadow her more important gift — herself,” said son James Thurmond Smithgall.

Quick-witted until the end, Lessie Smithgall spoke at Brenau University in Gainesville when she was 108: “I’m so old, when I was born the Dead Sea didn’t even know it was sick,” she said.

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. Photo: courtesy: Family

Credit: Courtesy family

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Credit: Courtesy family

Doug Ivester, longtime friend and former CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, recalls an African safari with her when she was 90. Their jeep got stuck in mud, and the guide told everyone to gather rocks to put under the tires for traction.

“I look around and she’s carrying the biggest rock of all, on her shoulders. I told her to let me get that, but she said, ‘No. I’ve always carried my weight.’ She always was participating above her weight in a big, big way.”

Lessie Smithgall died at her home in Gainesville. Her funeral will be held at 3 p.m. on July 10 at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, with burial in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta. Little & Davenport Funeral Home in Gainesville is handling arrangements.

Born in 1911 in East Point outside of Atlanta, she grew up in the city and was raised by her father, who sold printing services and served on the Atlanta City Council, and her mother, who was a homemaker. As a child, she took tap-dancing lessons, studied piano, and began playing tennis, which she continued until 89. When her father took her to an Atlanta performance of The Metropolitan Opera, it began a passion that lasted her lifetime.

She graduated in 1929 from Girls High School, which was renamed Roosevelt High School when Atlanta schools became co-educational, and enrolled that fall at UGA, becoming one of its first female journalism graduates in 1933. She got a job as copy editor at Atlanta radio station WGST, where she met announcer Charles Augustus Smithgall Jr. They married in 1934.

While her husband built a media conglomerate, Lessie Smithgall wrote for the Atlanta Journal’s Sunday magazine alongside Celestine Sibley, focused on raising four children, and continued to bolster the arts.

To escape the hustle of city life, the Smithgalls moved to Gainesville in 1947, founding The Gainesville Times and eventually settling on a tract that provided their children exposure to woods, streams, boating, and animals ranging from peacocks to horses.

Charles Smithgall Jr., who died in 2001, was renowned for his own philanthropic contributions, including selling 5,664 mountainous acres to the state for half its value. It became Smithgall Woods State Park near Helen. Meanwhile, Lessie Smithgall concentrated on arts and education. She received a Georgia Arts & Entertainment Legacy Award in 2008 for her contributions.

Lodge guests at Smithgall Woods State Park relax by Dukes Creek Falls. Lessie and Charles Smithgall owned the land and allowed Georgia to acquire it as a gift-purchase.

Credit: Clint Williams/AJC

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Credit: Clint Williams/AJC

She was a major benefactor of Brenau University, funding the nursing school, performing arts center, and Lessie Smithgall Tennis Center. She was a lifelong supporter of UGA, playing a pivotal role in The Peabody Awards being established there, and helping found the Peabody-Smithgall Lecture Series.

“For the University of Georgia to have the equivalent of the Pulitzer in broadcasting is a very significant contribution,” said Jeffrey Jones, the Lambdin Kay Chair and Executive Director of the Peabody Awards at UGA.

Lessie Smithgall served numerous Atlanta arts groups including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors and the Woodruff Arts Alliance Board of Trustees. In Gainesville, she is credited with bringing Atlanta Symphony performances to the city, establishing a branch of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, co-founding the Arts Council, and creating the Smithgall Arts Center.

“No matter how elaborate people might think her impact was, it was much deeper and greater still,” said Lianne Daniel, her executive assistant for the last 15 years.

“She thought of those her gifts would touch. She brought it down to a level of person-to-person. She’d say, ‘We’re going to have more children who hear music, more kids who go to college, more families enjoying the woods.’”

When Lessie Smithgall wrote her memoirs 13 years ago, she put it this way:

“I’m not saying my life is without flaws, that the road is always smooth, and without leaves. I’ve made mistakes. But I wanted to take the road less traveled — I sought it out. I wanted my life to make a difference.”

Survivors include sons Charles Augustus Smithgall III of Palm Beach, Florida., and Atlanta, John Frederick Smithgall of Atlanta, and James Thurmond Smithgall of New York, New York; six grandchildren; and five great-granchildren.