CHICAGO — Edith Renfrow Smith is about to turn 109 years old, and as she sits down in a leather chair in the dining room at a senior home, she’s ready to talk about everything, just don’t ask her how she’s feeling.
“Don’t ask me,” she said. “I am not sick. I am old. You know, birthdays come around every year.”
Smith has seen and experienced more than almost anyone alive. Her first birthday, July 14, 1914, was two weeks before the start of World War I.
She has been alive for two pandemics, two World Wars, the moon landing, the fall of the Soviet Union and the election of President Barack Obama.
“I think this has been the greatest century we have seen,” she said. “There have been so many changes.”
The technological advances have been staggering. She’s lived through the dawn of radio, television, and the internet, but nothing wowed her like her family’s first telephone, installed back in 1917 when less than a third of the country had them.
“The telephone on the wall,” she recalled. “I was three, I asked my mother what that was, it was so big. That was something so exciting.”
Today in her apartment at Brookdale senior living in Lakeview, she’s still using the phone to chat with friends. She also makes her famous strawberry jam, which she jars, and then gives away to her neighbors.
Chicago is a long from her hometown of Grinnell, Iowa, where her father worked as a cook, and her mother was a laundress. She emphasized education, and etiquette.
“She never let us call anyone a name, she never allowed any profanity and always be polite,” Smith said. “That was so emphasized. Say, ‘please,’ don’t just say ‘gimmie.’ say please.”
From her mother, she also learned a mantra that would give her confidence throughout her life: “There’s no one better than you,” her mother would tell her daily.
Smith recalls her mother saying: “Remember what I told you, ‘there’s no one, no one… They may have a lot more money, they may have a lot more hair, and may have more clothes, but still, you are the only one named Edith Smith.”
Grinnell College was just a few blocks from her home, and she attended the liberal arts college. In 1937, she became the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell. It was the Great Depression when one in four Americans were out of work.
She left Iowa for Chicago in search of a job and found one as a secretary at the YWCA.
“You don’t know how many jobs I had between 1937 and 1954,” she said. “I had a whole lot, I started at the YWCA, I had a job for the state, a job for the city, anywhere they’d pay me more money.”
She met her husband Henry Smith in 1940. They raised two daughters on Chicago’s South Side.
Eventually, she became a sixth-grade teacher at Theodore Herzl Elementary School, a public school in Chicago.
“1954 is when I started to teach because I had gone back to take a methods course, at teachers’ college, so I taught from 1954 to 1976.”
She’s been retired for almost five decades.
“My retirement has been wonderful because I used it to volunteer and to help because I had gotten so much help for my entire life,” she said.
She spent years volunteering at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Goodwill.
As she celebrates her 109th birthday she has some wisdom to share: “I’ll tell you one thing,” she said. “Have a goal. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t.”