Lessie Smithgall, University of Georgia alumna and trailblazing journalist, turned 108 on April 1, 2019. Mrs. Smithgall (ABJ ’33) has created a life worth celebrating through her philanthropic support of Grady College of Journalism and a myriad of arts and environmental organizations across the state. Today, we are tipping our hats to her most recent recognition: per current records, she is the oldest living graduate of the University of Georgia and oldest living member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Mrs. Smithgall was an active student leader on campus. She was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta when women’s fraternities were just beginning at UGA, and she was President of Women’s Student Government and Zodiac. Her academic achievements were recognized through the honors societies Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi, and she was treasurer of Theta Sigma Phi, a society for women in communications. These moments of leadership would serve as cornerstones for her career and philanthropic influence.
A few short years following her graduation, Mrs. Smithgall was instrumental in bringing the prestigious broadcast award, the George Foster Peabody Awards, to UGA. Through an introduction of her WSB Radio colleague, Lambdin Kay, to her mentor, School of Journalism Dean John Drewry, the Peabody Awards were established in 1940. Since then, UGA has been the host of the broadcast equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize.
To further support the Peabody Awards and Grady College, Mrs. Smithgall and her late husband, Charles, established the Lambdin Kay Chair for the Peabody Awards. This fund provides program support for the Director of the Peabody Awards and the Peabody-Smithgall Lecture Series. Mark your calendar and attend this year’s lecture on April 3. Eric Deggans, NPR’s full-time TV critic, will present his lecture entitled “Decoding Media’s Coverage of Race, Gender and Differences.”
Mrs. Smithgall’s impact extends beyond campus, into the media, arts, and the preservation of Georgia’s landscape through Smithgall Woods Conservation Area. She and her husband co-founded WGGA radio in 1941 and The Gainesville Times in 1947. Their joint generosity supported the press, state and local arts councils, and the conservation of land for decades, lifting up communities in North Georgia and beyond. A plaque at the entrance to The Gainesville Times displays a quote that clearly reflects their disposition: “Guided by the constitutional principle of the public’s right to know, we dedicate this building to the continued enlightenment and freedom of the people of North Georgia.”
Whether on UGA’s campus, Georgia’s foothills, or through broadcast journalism, Lessie Smithgall has been elevating the people and principles she believes in for 108 years. Join us in wishing her a very happy birthday by attending her eponymous lecture, enjoying the arts, or engaging with quality journalism. With each of these acts, you’re taking part in the legacy of a true Bulldog legend.
Happy birthday, Mrs. Smithgall!