Lessie Smithgall’s birthday party this year was no small affair. Family, friends and admirers came from near and far to Gainesville in April to celebrate with Smithgall (ABJ ’33) as she turned 100.
“People lined up in a receiving line to speak with her,” says Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards, which honor excellence in radio, television and new media and are housed in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “They would introduce themselves and kneel down beside her to talk and be with her.”
Newcomb holds the Lambdin Kay Chair for the Peabodys, a product of Smithgall’s generosity. She and her husband established the chair in 1997, but Smithgall played a role in bringing the awards to UGA long before that.
As a WSB television copywriter in 1938, Smithgall overheard her boss, Lambdin Kay, talking about radio awards in need of a sponsor. She set up a meeting between Kay and her college mentor, Grady College Dean John E. Drewry, and the rest is history. Smithgall attended the awards for years and even challenged host Walter Cronkite to a tennis match when she was 89.
Smithgall’s connection to the Peabody Awards may be her most famous contribution to UGA, but she has given to the university and her community in many other ways. She and her husband founded The Gainesville Daily Times, helped start the Arts Council in Gainesville and gave 185 acres for a botanical garden within Gainesville city limits. The Smithgall Woodlands Garden is still a work in progress, but thanks to Smithgall it will soon serve as a gathering place for the community she loves.