For some, honor takes the form of a lustrous, faceless statuette. For others, it's wall plaques attesting to one's general wonderfulness and credibility.
For Josephine Smith, it comes in the form of a simple beige telephone.
The phone is her hot line to Huntley Bookstore--all Smith has to do is push a button and it speed-dials the store. You'd think Huntley staff would be particularly eager to chat with Smith, considering the store gave her the phone already programmed. It's rather an odd cost-benefit situation, though.
Smith talks to Huntley, oh, once a year.
"But it's lovely, and every time I go over there I see someone who gives me a hug," she trills. "You'd think I bought the bookstore."
Maybe not, but she's nearly that influential. The 94-year-old award-winning columnist for the Claremont Courier won her telephonic stripes by becoming the scourge of automated phone answerers everywhere--particularly Huntley Bookstore, natch. The store's grudging concession to the 20th Century is only one among many modern vices Smith has tackled as the voice of the town's sizable elderly community.
Her weekly column and fourth career, launched at the unsinkable age of 83, speaks loudly for her less able peers on such troubling matters as incontinence and drafty doctor's tables. In her column "About Aging," Smith also mines that most pleasurable province of the elderly, a seemingly endless memory of a gracious and well-spent life. Much of it is spiced with advice from someone who ought to know.
Smith's efforts recently won her the honor of being named the state's top columnist by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.--for the second time in three years. And her claim to immortality is being buttressed by the Claremont Colleges' Denison Library, which has placed her diaries and papers alongside manuscripts of such literary luminaries as May Sarton and Marianne Moore.
"I call these diaries those of an extraordinary ordinary person," says Judy Harvey Sahak, librarian of the Denison Library. "I value them as highly as those of women authors who have gained more celebrity."
As for the no-nonsense Smith, she doesn't see what all the fuss is about: "I said to the librarian, 'Why the heck do you want these? I'm not anybody famous at all.' "
But then celebrity could be in the eye of the beholder. In stately Claremont, Josephine Smith gets around. Her column is so well read that on one occasion when illness forced her to take a break, a reader sent camellias.
"I think everybody in town reads Josephine's column," says Frances Wiegand, Huntley Bookstore director and telephone donor. "I don't think there are any age barriers at all because they're all so fascinating."
"I think she does an awfully good job," says Claremont Courier Editor Martin Weinberger. "She does ring a bell with people because she's able to write about experiences that are common to many people,
and yet unique to people of her age. That's a very unusual combination."
Consider Smith on her visit to the Grand Canyon: "There was a throb of silence. . . . That sensation began eons ago; when the river, carving out this magnificent canyon, had left some of the sound of its water, rushing, forcing, carving its way with patience; forming, shaping this beauty with the help of the centuries to reach me, where I stood."
Smith on the Depression and today's echoes: "Does everyone have to wait for a prestige job, big pay to fall into his or her lap? . . . During the Depression . . . we worked at whatever came to hand. We bartered. We survived. You will, too."
On waiting at the doctor's office: "I wonder when doctors will understand that patients' time has its value, too."
"Oh, \o7 that\f7 got a response," Smith says, roosting in her memorabilia and plant-strewn retirement home. "Really and truly, it reorganized doctors' offices all around here. My own doctor said to me, 'What are you doing to me?' I said, 'Probably something somebody ought to have done to you five years ago.' "
It was that sort of fearlessness in the face of nonsense that got her the job in the first place. The invitation came 11 years ago, the day the Christian radio program she and her late husband, Dwight, were hosting got the boot. The open window was offered by Editor Weinberger, who happened to be scheduled to appear on the program the day it was axed. (The station was no longer required to carry public service programming.)
Now that Smith was suddenly available, the editor suggested the column. "Josephine is a very outspoken person," he says.
Indeed, Smith has had plenty of practice treading her own trail. Born into a wealthy New York family, she went to high school with Elwin White, later better known as E.B. White.
"We were all jockeying for position," she says, "so the matter of writing, which Elwin lived for, became an interest I developed. Writing is now my greatest pleasure."