Lessie Smithgall Receives Unprecedented Second Honorary Doctorate for Family Philanthropy in Science and Ecology

Originally published on 11/17/09

Lessie Smithgall

Smithgall at surprise Brenau ceremony Nov. 13, 2009. In her book, I Took the Fork, Lessie Smithgall wrote: "I wanted my life to make a difference. At the same time I wanted to be genuine. 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 I have been that person."

Commemorating the significant contributions that she and her family have made to global and local environmental preservation, Brenau University on Nov. 13, 2009, conferred an honorary doctor of sciences degree on Lessie Smithgall, who with her late husband, Charles, presided over a Gainesville, Ga.-based media company that operated radio, television and newspaper interests in several states.

Brenau University President Ed L. Schrader presented the diploma to Mrs. Smithgall at a special dinner at the Chattahoochee Country Club in Gainesville following the autumn meeting of the university’s governing board. Mrs. Smithgall is a member of the university’s emeritus trustee board. Her husband also was once a Brenau trustee.

Smithgall at surprise Brenau ceremony Nov. 13, 2009. In her book, I Took the Fork, Lessie Smithgall wrote: “I wanted my life to make a difference. At the same time I wanted to be genuine. 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 I have been that person.”

“The name of the Smithgall family has been synonymous with unparalleled public generosity that has benefitted, quite literally, millions of people and which will continue to benefit them in years to come,” said Schrader. “As matriarch of this remarkable family, Lessie Smithgall has set the tone for philanthropy that has spanned the globe, helping gorillas in Africa, students and faculty in at least three higher education institution and even pick-up tennis players at Brenau University.”

The honorary degree marks the second time that Brenau has recognized the contributions of Mrs. Smithgall. In 1984, the board conferred on her an honorary doctorate of humane letters primarily because of her contributions and support of the arts in Gainesville, Atlanta and elsewhere.

However, Schrader said the second honorary doctorate was most appropriate because of the focus she has had in recent years on preservation of natural areas, natural resources and wildlife.

“So few of us leave legacies that go so far beyond ourselves that they almost become legacies,” said Schrader. “But Lessie Smithgall does not just sit around the outside of life. She enjoys it.”

Clearly, she seemed to be enjoying the surprise ceremony, which brought together her three sons, Charles III, John and Thurmond, and included a special video tribute to her daughter, the internationally renowned anthropologist Elizabeth “Bay” Smithgall Watts, who died in 1994.

“To think,” she said, “I almost didn’t come tonight. I am just overwhelmed by this great honor.”

She said she was especially touched by the video presentation by Dr. George Bey, an anthropology professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., who studied under Smithgall’s daughter and was a close friend. Bey was in Turkey and could not attend the ceremony, but he described Elizabeth Smithgall’s many qualities, including her sense of humor, which he says he suspected she inherited from her mother. On that subject, the mother proved the point, recalling her daughter’s answer when someone once asked her why she chose to work with chimpanzees rather than larger apes favored by Dian Fossey. Smithgall recalled that her daughter “said to the man, ‘Have you ever tried to take a urine sample from a 500-pound gorilla?'”

Smithgall, 98, was born in East Point, Ga., and grew up in Atlanta. She attended the University of Georgia, where she majored in journalism and graduated in 1933. She returned to Atlanta to work for WGST radio and it was there she met Charles Smithgall. She and Charles married in 1934 and had four children.

After Charles and Lessie worked together in Atlanta, they moved to Gainesville to start their own business, venturing first into radio in 1941. In 1947 they founded The Times, a daily newspaper in Gainesville, which they owned until 1981 when they sold it to one of the nation’s largest media companies, Gannett Company, which a year later used the location as a building block for establishing a national newspaper, USA Today.

Charles Smithgall died in 2002, but before, Charles and Lessie Smithgall together initiated a legacy of philanthropy that reflected their myriad interests and passions. Both avid tennis players, the tennis center at Brenau bears their name, as does the road leading to it. The latest addition paid for by Lessie Smithgall gifts is an indoor tennis facility.

In addition to contributions to Brenau, the Smithgalls have also contributed significantly to Charles’ alma mater, Georgia Tech, and to the University of Georgia. Lessie and Charles funded the Lambdin Kay Chair for the Peabodys, which endows the director of the prestigious annual broadcasting awards, but she also was instrumental in bringing the broadcasting industry’s “Oscars” to her alma mater and the state of Georgia.

Lessie Smithgall was the first recipient in 2008 of the Georgia Arts & Entertainment Legacy Award, which honors people in the field of arts & entertainment who have made a significant contribution to the vitality, diversity and enrichment of Georgia’s cultural legacy. She has been a member of the board of directors for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, appointed by the governor to the board of directors of the Georgia Council for the Arts, a board of trustees’ member of Woodruff Arts Alliance and honorary trustee of Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival.

Lessie was the organizer and first chairman of the Georgia Sponsors for the Atlanta Symphony. She was also the organizer of Theatre Wings and Theatre Wings Endowment, an Alliance Theatre Support Group. She is credited with founding the Gainesville Arts Council and indeed held early meetings of that group in her home and the Smithgalls’ support of matching grants led to the acquisition and restoration of The Arts Council Smithgall Arts Center.

Her interest in animals and the environment began when she was a child when her father frequently took her on trips to the Atlanta zoo. But in 1984 Dr. Terry Maple, a close friend of Charles and Lessie’s daughter, “Bay,” an esteemed anthropologist at Tulane University, became the zoo’s transformational director, and Bay offered to provide significant funding to support graduate students who would conduct original research in zoo biology and behavioral primatology. After her death, Charles and Lessie picked up the challenge, not only funding the chairs, but in Lessie’s case getting up close and personal with primates. She visited the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and has been an active supporter of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Atlanta, an organization that in 2004 Lessie recognized for her own philanthropic efforts in supporting important conservation and related causes and because of her love of nature and all animals.

“It has been 25 years since Brenau University thanked Lessie and the Smithgall family for all that they have done, and that is long enough,” said Schrader. “If you ever need proof that one person can make a difference in the world, look to Lessie Smithgall.”

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