CELESTIA BAILEY (LESSIE) SMITHGALL
Lessie Smithgall, co-founder of The Times with her husband Charles, and widely known for her philanthropy, devotion to the arts and her community died at her Gainesville home Friday, June 25, 2021. She was 110 years old.
Though her physical health had diminished, Mrs. Smithgall used a wheelchair until recently to get around to various functions in which she was involved. She made brief remarks when The Times unveiled a portrait of her in the Green Street newspaper building she and Charles built in 1970.
Lessie maintained her characteristic wit, kept up with current events and remained interested in her favorite causes and people throughout her life. Smallish in stature, she was large in her generosity, work ethic, interests and wide and diversified circle of friends.
Celestia Bailey (Lessie) Smithgall was born April 1, 1911, in East Point, Ga., to Charles Thomas and Elma Elizabeth Bailey nee Wootan, but grew up in Atlanta’s West End.
Early on, she developed an interest in nature, music, books and the arts, influenced considerably by her father, Charles Thomas Bailey, an Atlanta city councilman, who often took her to the opera and the zoo. As councilman, he was overseer of the city’s parks, including Grant Park. She also displayed her independence as a child, taking the streetcar by herself to take tap dancing in downtown Atlanta.
She graduated cum laude from Girls High School in 1929 and entered journalism school at the University of Georgia to cultivate her love for writing. In college she served as president of Women’s Student Government, earned the Sigma Delta Chi journalism award and was a member of Theta Sigma Chi Women in Journalism, Phi Kappa Phi and Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. She was the oldest living Phi Beta Kappa, America’s most prestigious academic honor society. Just two years ago, she spoke during a reception at Brenau University announcing the university’s plans to establish a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
After graduating as a Phi Beta Kappa from Henry W. Grady School of Journalism in 1933, she began work as an advertising copywriter for $10 a week at Atlanta radio station WGST. There she met her future husband, Charles Smithgall, who was an announcer. They began dating and married Oct. 27, 1934, in the minister’s study at Druid Hills Baptist Church.
When Charles was hired by WSB, Lessie followed at the insistence of general manager Lambdin Kay. For a while, the couple lived on a farm outside Atlanta, where both she and Charles learned to milk a cow.
Lessie’s husband began to expand his reach, acquiring radio stations and started WGGA in Gainesville in 1941. The Smithgalls then founded the Gainesville Daily Times Jan. 26, 1947, after purchasing the weekly Gainesville Eagle.
Lessie had written for the Atlanta Journal Sunday magazine along with such writers as Margaret Mitchell, Celestine Sibley and Frank Daniel, and assumed a columnist’s role on the Gainesville paper. She would write about most anything in her Gainesville Times column, but focused on community happenings and local people, eventually wearing out her old Corona portable typewriter.
She also was a charter member of the Northeast Georgia Writers Club and member of American League of Pen Women.
Lessie quickly immersed herself in Hall County’s community life all the while shepherding their four children, Bay, Thurmond, Charles III and John, through school and their activities from their Park Street home. They moved to a new home on Blue Ridge Drive in 1955.
Their homeplace eventually became 1500 Habersham Drive, behind which were 185 acres of woods that reached across a cove of Lake Lanier to Cleveland Road. That was where the children rode horses, hiked, waded a stream and explored. Deer, peacock, pea hens, boar and other animals roamed their expansive backyard.
The property in 2001 became Atlanta Botanical Gardens, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy, a gift from Lessie and her husband. Their home, including guest house, office, tennis courts, hot house, pool, pond and vegetable beds, will become a part of the Gardens complex. Lessie also donated $3 million as an endowment grant to go along with funds the botanical gardens raised. She had been a member of local and state garden clubs for a number of years.
Her impact on the community and state is well documented, though she never boasted about it. In fact, Lessie preferred their gifts be anonymous. “It wasn’t until we and other groups asked that we honor the Smithgalls with a legacy for their family name to be on buildings, property and other contributions,” said close friend Gladys Wyant, director of The Arts Council.
Lessie was one of the founders and first president of The Arts Council organized in 1970. She continued throughout her life to support the Council and not long ago made remarks to the organization during its annual meeting.
The Smithgalls provided the first matching funds for purchase of the old Gainesville Midland Depot property in downtown Gainesville and its renovation into what is now the Arts Council Smithgall Arts Center. Lessie also provided the money to acquire and preserve the old First Methodist Church building on Green Street to serve as a performing arts complex.
A member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors and friend of famed director Robert Shaw, Lessie 40 years ago helped the local Arts Council bring the orchestra to Gainesville for an annual performance. She also organized and became first chair of the Georgia Sponsors for the Atlanta Symphony, was on the board of trustees for Woodruff Arts Alliance and honorary trustee of Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival. The family helped fund the Robert Shaw Dining Room in the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.
The Smithgalls were recipients of the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Progress and Service, and she was the first Georgia Entertainment Arts and Legacy Award honoree.
Lessie was impressed with Ed Cabell when he became director of Gainesville College Theater and the local civic theater in 1968. She was one of his biggest boosters, and they collaborated to help form Gainesville Theater Alliance between theater departments at the then-junior college and Brenau University. “The Alliance would never exist if it weren’t for Lessie,” Cabell said. Later, they put together Theater Wings, a volunteer organization to support the Alliance.
The two also were prime movers, traveling across the state, in forming the Georgia Citizens for the Arts, a support group for the Georgia Council for the Arts, on which Cabell served. Lessie also was a governor’s appointment to the Council for many years.
“Her service and influence brought grants to the Gainesville-Hall County arts community that added much to the richness of today’s art community,” said LeTrell Simpson, a longtime friend.
A tennis player since age 12 when her father gave her a tennis racket, Lessie had tennis courts built behind her house and played until she was 89 years old. During a Peabody Awards ceremony in New York City, Lessie challenged broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite to a match, but it never came about.
She always modestly deferred when somebody credited her for founding the Peabody Awards, the broadcast journalism equivalent to print’s Pulitizer Prizes. However, it was her idea, and she did the research necessary for an appropriate sponsor. She credited her boss, Lambdin Kay, with following through with John Drewry, dean of the University of Georgia journalism school, to make the awards a reality. At the Peabody Awards luncheons she was recognized as being the “last living founder” of the awards
Her interest in tennis led to the Smithgalls donating funds for a tennis center at Brenau University, which was able to attract world-class players. A trustee emeritus, she provided other financial support to the college. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Brenau in 1984 and in 2009 an unprecedented second Honorary Doctorate for Family Philanthropy in Science and Ecology.
Lessie was particularly proud of husband Charlie’s patiently assembling 5,600 acres of woodlands and streams in White County that would become a state park and conference center, Smithgall Woods. Charlie restored the neglected Duke’s Creek area and turned it over to the state for half its appraised value. An animal shelter in White County also bears the Smithgall name.
The Smithgalls provided some of the first money for founding the North Georgia Community Foundation in 1985, and Lessie was named the organization’s Philanthropist of the Year in 2007.
She has served her church, First Baptist on Gainesville’s Green Street, in several capacities, including time as a Sunday school teacher.
Lessie loved travel the world over with her husband and children. She often accompanied daughter Bay, head of the anthropology department at Tulane University, on trips to make presentations during her academic career. One of her highlights was a 1984 trip to Rwanda with Bay. Despite their leaders’ skepticism, Lessie at age 73 hiked for two and a half hours through steep and thick undergrowth for a peek at jungle gorillas.
She also traveled with son Thurmond during his music career both on business and pleasure, and with husband Charles set out to visit sons John and Charles III on their overseas military assignments.
She established the Charles T. Bailey and Elizabeth S. Watts chair at Georgia Tech for Zoo Atlanta in memory of her father and daughter.
Her closest traveling companions were a group of friends called the Caberellos after their leader, Ed Cabell. They not only traveled all over the world, but got together regularly for various outings or just for meals and conversation.
Lessie was a Girl Scout as a child, but maintained her membership and support all her life. She served as a leader and den mother, and the organization honored her as a Woman of Distinction. She also has been a member of the Junior League of Gainesville-Hall County and supporter of numerous other organizations, including Gainesville Children’s Theater, Boys and Girls Club, Quinlan Visual Arts Center, Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, Gainesville Chorale, Woodruff Arts Center, Northeast Georgia History Center, Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Hall County Library. She had a lifelong love of books and loved to talk with others about those she read.
Lessie also was active in the arts in Blue Hill, Maine, where she maintained a vacation home.
In 2008, she wrote her “story,” as she called her memoirs as told to author Phil Hudgins. She titled it “I Took the Fork,” a reference to baseball great Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In the book, she said she wanted her life to make a difference. “I wanted to be Celestia ‘Lessie’ Bailey Smithgall, who is what she is, who kept the faith, who persevered, who did not take herself too seriously, who for the most part, lived a good life and did a little good along the way. I pray that I have been that person.”
Those who have known her would agree that she has been that and more.
Besides her parents, Mrs. Smithgall was preceded in death by her husband Charles and daughter Elizabeth “Bay” Smithgall Watts.
Survivors are sons, Charles Augustus Smithgall III (Sally “Griff” Griffitts Smithgall), John Frederick Smithgall (Elaine Edmondson Smithgall) and James Thurmond Smithgall; grandchildren, Charles “Chas” Augustus Smithgall IV, (Lizeth “Liz” Arizmendi Smithgall) Meghan Griffitts Smithgall, Jessica Leigh Smithgall Crocker (Michael Crocker) , Jonathan Frederick Smithgall, Jason Aaron Smithgall, David William Smithgall; great-grandchildren, William Aaron Smithgall, Charles “Carlos” Augustus Smithgall V, Sofia Griffitts Smithgall, Santiago Hector Smithgall, Jackson Ian Crocker.
Funeral services for Celestia (Lessie) Bailey Smithgall, are scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, July 10, 2021 at First Baptist Church, Green Street. Interment will be at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta. A private family reception will be held immediately following the service.
In lieu of flowers the family has asked that memorial contributions please be made to Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Botanical Gardens-Gainesville, of the Semper Fi Fund for wounded soldiers.
Those wishing to send online condolences to the family may do so at littledavenport.com
Little & Davenport Funeral Home and Crematory, 355 Dawsonville Highway, SW, Gainesville, Georgia 30501 is in charge of funeral arrangements.
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