By Ken Feltman
I always look forward to the note on her Christmas card. This year, she wrote of one of her happiest childhood memories: “A pool of sunlight at the bottom of the stairs in our old farmhouse. I don’t remember my age, but I was very young and it was my birthday! My mother came in with a handful of ripe, red strawberries – the first of the season. I can recall this as vividly today as I could many years ago.”
This June, Vera Smith will celebrate her 100th birthday. She has taken life in with the same true memory of those first strawberries of the season. She knows that, no matter how difficult the childhood, nearly everyone has at least a few happy memories. She builds on those like the good teacher she was and is yet. She was my teacher a half century ago. I can still learn from her.
So to you, I echo one good woman’s holiday greeting: “May the happy memories of your childhood nurture you.”
March 2005: Childless, she and her husband took into their farmhouse dozens of exchange students and refugees from everywhere imaginable. One year, a sister and brother from Greece were at the farmhouse. Modern Greek became the language spoken in the house after “regular” school, when we students would gather to learn from each other and then learn a little classical Greek vocabulary from Mrs. Smith.
Last June, former students from all around the world made the journey – no, the pilgrimage – to that farmhouse where she was born and still lives to celebrate her 100th birthday. Many brought their children or grandchildren. She talked about being born before women had the vote, before two world wars, Vietnam and 9-11, before the assassinations of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act, before the mobile society made the world smaller and scarier.
She fretted that many older people grow pessimistic. She disagrees. She is optimistic. “We survived a terrible, bloody century. We are not quitters. We humans are made of solid stuff.”
This June, many of us will join to celebrate her 101st birthday. Most of us former students did not know each other. We were graduated years apart. Now, decades later, we have become friends. She is our common denominator. We come together not just because we share something. We come together because there are lessons still to learn.
She has never stopped being our teacher.
April 19, 2006: Vera Smith died in the home in which she was born and lived all her life. Her estate was valued in the millions and all of it went to local charities, libraries, schools and healthcare facilities. She would have celebrated her 102nd birthday in June. A teacher to the very end, she had been married for 54 years to an actuary and amateur investor, Arthur Smith, who died in 1994 at age 88.
He had turned a $500 investment in the stock market into more than $10 million at the time of his death, not including millions of dollars that he and she gave to charity during his lifetime. Vera Smith continued his skilled investing and philanthropic ways, earning more and giving all of it away during her lifetime and upon her death.
How fortunate I was to have been her student. She gave her students something more valuable than money. I will never stop learning from her, from her life, from her example.