|Edith Renfrow Smith receives her honorary doctorate from Grinnell College in 2019.|
A big part of my job is brevity. To take a story, sift it down to its essentials, and tell the tale in 719 words. But that seemed a crime with a life as long and interesting as Edith Renfrow Smith's, even running at more than twice the length, as my first column on her did Monday. So I divided out a second part, and still had to overlook important aspects to her life.
“There is no message!” objected Edith Renfrow Smith, when I suggested that readers will expect her to share wisdom gleaned over her long life — she turns 107 on Wednesday. “People worked hard! And didn’t let the kids run the street. They always kept their children busy doing something and they were always looking to the future.”
I’d call that wisdom aplenty.
On Monday, Sun-Times readers were introduced to Smith, and learned about her extraordinary life: how her grandparents were born into slavery, how she became the first Black graduate of Grinnell College and came to Chicago to work in 1937. Though we never even got to the bulk of her career, from 1954 to 1976, as a Chicago Public Schools teacher.
That’s how I met her; thanks to a CPS colleague and reader, George Lopatka.
“I was just out of college when Beethoven school opened,” said Lopatka, 81. “I was a 22-year-old. She was 47, a master teacher.”
For years, he’d phone her. Recently Lopatka decided to visit, and asked if I wanted to come along. I went, knowing absolutely nothing of the marvelous person who awaited me. Just the opposite: expecting every cliche of old age that I’d be embarrassed to articulate here. Imagine my surprise.
|George Lopatka and Edith Renfrow Smith|
“He was telling the kids, ‘Black is beautiful,’” Lopatka remembered. “Before that, you’d never say somebody was ‘Black.’ ... ‘Black’ was an insult. I would break up a fight, and ask the kids, ‘What are you fighting for?’ and one would say, ‘He said my mother was Black.’”
One moment in a whirl of history Smith has seen. Yet she seems a person who seemingly glided untouched through a century of struggle. She doesn’t present herself as someone who had to overcome anything, but rather as someone blessed.
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