April 30, 2019

Laughing keeps Lessie Smithgall young at 108

How do you get to be the oldest alum of the University of Georgia?
You would have had to be born on April Fool’s Day, 1911.
No joke.
 Lessie Smithgall, 108, is a 1933 graduate of UGA’s Henry W. Grady School of Journalism. Eighty-six years later, Lessie Bailey Smithgall beams when she talks about her days in Athens. One of the first things she remembers learning was the tradition of “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” between Georgia and its archrival, Georgia Tech. That’s why she still chuckles about marrying a Tech graduate, Charlie Smithgall, in 1934.
The first day she met Charlie, she didn’t like him. No, not one bit. Sitting in her parlor on April 16, she relived that fortuitous encounter with the loud, rude man who was interrupting her “tryout” for a job at Atlanta’s WGST. Paychecks were scarce in the midst of the Great Depression. Besides, this Tech man already had a job at the radio station.
As she talked, the self-effacing “queen” of Gainesville twisted her painted lips and shook her head. And then she laughed. If anything has sustained Lessie Smithgall through her remarkable longevity, it has been a healthy sense of humor. Within a year of that “unlovable” first meeting, the couple married, remaining together for 68 years before Charlie, 91, died in 2002.
The Smithgalls may have started their eventual empire on a shoestring with borrowed money, but they became royalty in the media world of radio, cable TV and newspapers. The more money they made, the more they gave away.
Perhaps you’ve visited Smithgall Woods, along Dukes Creek, near Helen in Northeast Georgia’s mountains, or the Smithgall Arts Center in Gainesville. The Atlanta Botanical Garden was given 168 acres of their backyard to create the Smithgall Woodland Garden. The family’s generosity is legendary, but Mrs. Smithgall says their name is on enough things. She prefers just quietly giving.
As a past president of the University of Georgia’s Alumni Association and as a journalist, I wanted to meet this legend. Phil Hudgins, our retired senior editor, made it happen. Early in his career, he worked for the Smithgalls, who founded Gainesville’s daily newspaper, The Times. When Mrs. Smithgall decided to publish her memoir, she called on Phil to tell her story. For an hour, Phil and I listened as she regaled us with stories, punctuated with laughs.

In the print journalism world, a Pulitzer Prize is the Academy Award of recognition. For broadcasters, a Peabody Award is the ultimate. Historians will tell you that the Peabody Awards might not be if it hadn’t been for Lessie Smithgall.
Just seven years after graduating from UGA, she championed the idea and the name, tying it to her alma mater. Today, sponsoring and archiving the Peabody Awards brings the University of Georgia global acclaim.
One of her favorite Peabody stories is about Walter Cronkite, who was considered the dean of TV broadcasters and dubbed “The Most Trusted Man in America.” Mrs. Smithgall, who played tennis until she was 89, learned Cronkite also played tennis. She challenged him to a game. She’s not telling the rest of the story, but she did say to the CBS icon that he had a good head of hair. And, oh, he was a good broadcaster, too.
And there you have Lessie Smithgall.
The oldest alum of the University of Georgia is serious about making the world a better place for others, but not so serious she can’t enjoy a laugh.
Even if it’s about herself and marrying a Tech man.