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At 100, 'Aunt Gertrude' a witness to history

Margarita Persico | 2/18/2009, 3:36 a.m.
Gertrude Smith (right) holds a bouquet of flowers given to her by members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in celebration of her 100th birthday on Sept. 21, 2008. A fourth-generation Bostonian who touched the lives of scores of young people as a teacher in the city as well as Martha’s Vineyard, “Aunt Gertrude” watched with pride last month as Barack Obama was sworn in as the country’s first black president. In fact, she says, she didn’t miss a second. Margarita Persico

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Gertrude Smith (right) holds a bouquet of flowers given to her by members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in celebration of her 100th birthday on Sept. 21, 2008. A fourth-generation Bostonian who touched the lives of scores of young people as a teacher in the city as well as Martha’s Vineyard, “Aunt Gertrude” watched with pride last month as Barack Obama was sworn in as the country’s first black president. In fact, she says, she didn’t miss a second.

Gertrude Smith was focused. It was Jan. 20, 2009. Barack Obama was taking the oath of office, and the 100-year-old wasn’t about to miss a second of history unfolding.

“I kept my eyes right on the screen, looking at what was happening,” said Smith. “I watched every minute of it. I could not turn my eyes away … I didn’t stop to eat, to drink, to go to the bathroom, nothing. I just kept my eyes looking at the screen.”

It is fair to say that Smith has become a fan of our new president. She’s proud to say that she read the Obama biography “Yes We Can” in a day, and on Jan. 20, she joined others at Jamaica Plain’s Sherrill House nursing and rehabilitation center to dissect the president’s inaugural address.

Her verdict?

“I like him. I approve of him,” said Smith. “I approve of the way he treats his wife. I approve of the way he treats his children — even the dog issue with the children. … He is a role model for millions of people.”

Coming from Smith, that’s quite a compliment. She certainly knows presidents. Thanks to what she says is God’s will, she’s lived through the tenures of 19 of them, starting with Theodore Roosevelt.

At the age of 100, the genteel lady who friends and family members call “Aunt Gertrude” remains a straightforward woman with many stories to tell. But don’t expect any of them to be laden with tips on how to reach the century mark.

“Oh, I don’t have any secrets,” she said. “Just keep on breathing.”

That simple but effective approach has paced Smith’s journey through life. At a celebration of Smith’s 100th birthday held this past September on Townsend Street, some of those close to Smith gathered to honor that journey. They told tales about the way she has embraced education and art, faith and fitness, family and friends. They recognized a full life well lived, and shared wishes that the riches would continue.

Asked to describe the newly minted centenarian, niece-in-law Stephanie Janey offered a single word. Even at 100 — standing not quite 5 feet tall, her soft and curly hair long since gone grey — Smith is still “feisty,” said Janey, who is the vice president of enrollment management and student affairs at Roxbury Community College.

It’s a character trait Smith has possessed all her life. She is a product of Roxbury and the South End, a fourth-generation Bostonian. One of her most cherished memories came in 1927, when she graduated from Girls’ High School and was selected from among all of Boston graduates to read the Preamble of the Constitution from the balcony of the Old State House, at the intersection of Washington and State streets.

Friends at the 100th birthday celebration said Smith has always been active, even in the days when opportunities for women were scarce. One place where opportunity was available was in the classroom.

After high school, Smith went on to Teacher’s College of the City of Boston, and became an educator in the Boston Public Schools. During a career that spanned several decades, Smith taught at the David A. Ellis Elementary School and later served as acting principal of the Henry L. Higginson Elementary School, both in Roxbury. After her retirement, she still continued to shape young minds, teaching Sunday school and art classes at many community venues in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard.

Smith said she first went to Martha’s Vineyard on her doctor’s recommendation. She was having back problems, and her doctor said getting out in the fresh air and exercising would help improve things.

Something out there certainly agreed with Smith. She started teaching art classes to children on the island during the summers, and wound up continuing to do so for 50 years, instructing all types of children. Over the years, she came to be considered among the island’s finest artists, and received honors for her community service work.

 “An artist of many disciplines, Gertrude is an accomplished painter, photographer, pottery maker and reading performer,” said Alisa R. Drayton, a friend of Smith’s and her sister in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. “She shared her many talents by teaching art to children at the community center on Martha’s Vineyard for 45 years during her summer breaks as a full-time educator with the Boston Public Schools.”

When she first went to the Vineyard, Smith joined up with the Polar Bear Club, swimming with them every morning at Oak Bluffs at 7:30 a.m.