Brenau mourns the loss of community icon Lessie Smithgall

Jun 28, 2021
Brenau Staff
Lessie Smithgall
Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall

Celestia “Lessie” Bailey Smithgall, longtime Brenau University trustee emerita and Gainesville icon whose philanthropy and devotion to the arts, education and conservation helped shape the North Georgia landscape for generations, died at her Gainesville home Friday, June 25. She was 110 years old.

Smithgall was born in East Point, Georgia, 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.

Smithgall became a member of the Brenau Board of Trustees in 1987 and a trustee emerita in 1990. In 2009, Brenau conferred on Smithgall an unprecedented second honorary degree, a doctor of sciences, to commemorate the significant contributions of Smithgall and her family to global and local environmental preservation. In 1984, the university presented Smithgall with an honorary doctorate of humane letters for her contributions and support of the arts in Gainesville, Atlanta and elsewhere.

Before Charles’ death in 2002, the Smithgalls initiated a legacy of philanthropy that reflected their myriad interests and passions. Both avid tennis players, the Lessie Smithgall Tennis Center was named in recognition of their support of the program. The center includes six outdoor hard courts and a two court indoor facility, which were the only covered courts in Northeast Georgia, when the expansion was completed in August 2008.

Smithgall had a passion for Phi Beta Kappa and was active in attempting to bring this academic honor society to Brenau. In March 2019, she was the guest of honor at an event in Sellars Gallery where Brenau announced its intention to pursue membership in this society, an effort that continues to this day.

In her book I Took the Fork, 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.”

She was that person and so much more, said Brenau University President Anne Skleder.

“We at Brenau are both in awe of Lessie Smithgall’s incredible life and grateful for her many generous contributions to Brenau, Gainesville/Hall County and all of Georgia,” Skleder said. “The Smithgall legacy will live on at Brenau University, most notably through the Smithgall Tennis Center.”

Smithgall, who was instrumental in bringing the Peabody Awards to her alma mater, was the first recipient in 2008 of the Georgia Arts & Entertainment Legacy Award, which recognizes significant contributions to Georgia’s cultural legacy through arts and entertainment. Smithgall also served on the board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Georgia Council for the Arts and Woodruff Arts Alliance.

Smithgall is survived by her sons, Charles III, John and Thurmond Smithgall; six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be announced by Little-Davenport Funeral Home. To read more about the life and legacy of Lessie Smithgall, visit their website.