By Claire Halffield
At nearly 108 years old, Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall may be the oldest living member of Phi Beta Kappa. Recalling her childhood, she wrote in her 2007 memoir, “I was curious about everything.” That lively curiosity was on full display as she shared a lifetime of insights and experiences with ΦBK Secretary Fred Lawrence during his recent visit to her home in Gainesville, Georgia.
From an early age, Smithgall fell in love with reading and writing, leading her on a path to the University of Georgia. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1933, with a degree in journalism.
She began her career as a journalist at the radio station WGST in Atlanta where she met her husband, and later business partner, Charles Smithgall. Together they moved to nearby Gainesville and founded first a local radio station (WGGA) and then a newspaper, The Gainesville Daily Times. Lifelong collaborators, the Smithgalls did not always agree. On one occasion, they authored a pair of editorials endorsing opposing presidential candidates; Dwight Eisenhower had her support, and Adlai Stevenson had his. The novelty of the husband-wife debate attracted attention, and the opposing pieces even reran in Atlanta newspapers.
As a pillar of her local community, Smithgall is also a lifelong friend of the arts. She became the first chair of the Gainesville Arts Council. She played a key role in launching the organization Georgia Citizens for the Arts, which lobbied for state funding for the arts. She also helped to found Theatre Wings, an organization supporting an alliance of community and college theater groups. To this day, Theatre Wings plays a critical role supplying volunteers and funding to local theater companies.
Today, Smithgall still cites writing as her greatest joy. She looks back with pride on her many accomplishments, represented in part by a plaque on The Gainesville Daily Times building that reads: “Guided by the constitutional principle of the people’s right to know, we dedicate this building to the continued enlightenment and freedom of the people of North Georgia.” After meeting this remarkable member of Phi Beta Kappa, Secretary Lawrence observed that her long and admirable life, as a journalist, an arts advocate, and a philanthropist, is truly exemplary: “She represents the power of a liberal arts education to propel a meaningful, productive, and engaged life, dedicated to making a difference. Mrs. Smithgall is a true lifelong learner. She is as intellectually curious today as the young woman who aspired to study at the University of Georgia and succeeded at the highest level.”
Photo at top: Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall (ΦBK, University of Georgia) with ΦBK Secretary Fred Lawrence
Claire Halffield (ΦBK, DePauw University) is the Development Associate at the national office of Phi Beta Kappa. DePauw University is home to the Alpha of Indiana Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.