“I had to swim every day — rain or shine, walk and swim,” Smith said.
Her niece Janey recalled the story of one morning about 10 years ago when Smith had arrived late to the beach, after the others had already gone swimming. She went out alone, wound up losing her sense of direction and headed far into the ocean.
“She was floating on her back. I don’t know how long she was out there, but eventually a lobster boat came … and they rescued her,” said Janey.
The incident made for a story in the Vineyard Gazette newspaper.
“Gertrude Smith, a great swimmer at ninety,” the paper reported, “who was floating on her back when caught in the current that took her far too close to tragedy. She was rescued by a boater.”
After that incident, Smith stopped swimming. But she continued with her passion for the arts — and her interest in social activities and groups, like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
“As a member of the chapter, we go out and visit the senior sororities in the chapter, spend time with them, go have tea and coffee — just kind of keep in touch with them as they get older,” said Letitia Harris, president of AKA’s Boston chapter.
Harris said that Smith is now classified as a “Golden” member of the sorority, meaning that she’s been a member for more than 50 years. At Smith’s birthday celebration this past fall — which also marked the 100th birthday of the sorority, founded in 1908 on the campus of Howard University — Harris said she hopes to see Smith honored in five years at a “Diamond” celebration, marking 75 years as an AKA member.
When it comes to Smith’s health, Janey said she thinks her aunt is well for her age.
“Her mind is quick [and] sharp, and sometimes shocks us all,” Janey said.
She attributes Smith’s longevity and health in part to all those years of daily swimming, clean living (“She never smoked, she never drank,” Janey noted) and a healthy diet, though she did admit she has a preference for jellybeans.
“She is very much into natural healing and eating the right foods,” Janey said. “For instance, when I shop for her, I have to get her black raspberry jam for her shoulder … and she’ll say, ‘I need carrots for my eyes.’”
Until suffering a fall last year, Smith, who never married, lived on her own at the apartment where she had lived with her parents as a child. She took care of herself, preparing small meals, spending some time watching television and participating in the weekly family reunions on Tuesday evenings at Townsend Street, a tradition started more than 30 years ago by her late sister, Hortense Janey.
She also always went to church, attending services at Ebenezer Baptist. On the morning of Sept. 21, 2008, Smith’s 100th birthday, members of the church family presented her with a bouquet of flowers, thanked her for the songs she sang in the church choir, for the lessons she taught at Sunday school and for her participation in Ebenezer’s fashion shows. A deacon read letters from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, then-first lady Laura Bush and the city’s Elderly Commission congratulating her on her 100th birthday.
“Smith has always been here,” said fellow congregant Virginia Hamilton, 84, who said she has been a member of the Ebenezer church since 1950. “She’s just a blessing to us all. She comes regularly. She hardly ever misses any senior meetings.”
It’s a tradition Smith inherited from her mother, Blanche P. Pelham Smith, who was also a member of the Ebenezer Baptist congregation.
“I’ve been in the church all my life,” said Smith, one of seven children. “I was taken to church when I was a few days old. My mother was [a member] and my father [John Edward Smith] was a member of a church in Woburn, St. John’s Baptist Church.”
A century later, she still professes her faith and calls it a “sad situation for people who don’t go to church. Sad situation.”
These days, especially in the advent of the Obama administration, Smith said she is happy that she traded her daily swimming for following the often choppy waters of U.S. politics. She continues to enjoy life, spirituality and, sometimes, jellybeans.
She said she prayed for President Obama and his family, and is pleased that God heard her prayers.
After all, she added, “It’s God’s will that I lived that long.”
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