The phone is ringing in the immaculate Columbia, Mo., home of Mabel Geoghegan Smith ’39, who recently celebrated an incredible 70 years of marriage to former football coach Harry Smith.
“Ma!” yells her son Scooter (christened Harry Jr.) from the next room. “Phone’s ringing.”
“Let it,” she says. “I’m being interviewed by Columbia College.”
Columbia College. She still is not completely used to it. In 1939, the college was Christian College, and Smith has a bevy of luminous memories far beyond being herded to church every Sunday and wearing hats and gloves whenever Cathys, as the young students were called, were allowed to leave campus.
Smith, originally from Bardstown, Ky. (“If you’re a bourbon drinker you’ve heard of it”), wanted to attend the University of Kentucky, but her dad nixed that. The school had a reputation for wildness. But Columbia, Mo.?
“My gosh, it was like going out to live with the Indians,” she says, even though her older sister, Estelle May Geoghegan Gordon ’36, had loved it.
She soon found out that Columbia in general and Christian College in particular were eminently civilized.
There was the party thrown by Virginia Southwell Singletary ’39 — as in Southwell Complex; Singletary was a trustee for nearly 20 years. “It got pretty wild,” she grins. And sneaking food into the second floor Missouri Hall room she shared with roommate Shirley Perdee Ragan ’39 and having to survive the resulting ant infestation. She also remembers taking the train up to the Centralia, Mo., home of Mildred Gulick Miller ’39 and hanging around with Helen Robson Walton ’39 — yes, that Helen Walton — the fencing club president, even though Smith was more of a horseback riding and tennis girl.
She remembers riding in the private railroad car the college commissioned to take the women to visit Washington, D.C., and the White House, Annapolis, Md., home of the United States Naval Academy, among other sites. “That dance in Annapolis — that was a wonderful dance,” she says. ‘We were accused of having too much fun.”
Smith admits that Ragan was better on horseback than she was, but she was unbeatable in tennis and has an inscription to prove it. “Here’s to a mighty fine tennis player,” reads the 1939 yearbook notation from Grace Rand Mitchell, physical education instructor. She also fondly remembers the inspired Mary Paxton Keeley, first female graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and professor of journalism and creative writing from 1929 to 1952: “She rode a bicycle everywhere … That was unusual back then.” And she recalled the 10 hours of chemistry.
That came in surprisingly handy. A few years after graduation she met and married Harry, an up-and-coming University of Missouri football coach, and the newlyweds moved to Kansas City, Mo., to become defense workers for the Aluminum Company of America. Smith made aircraft cylinder heads and had to use a spectrograph.
The couple went on to have two children, Harry Jr. and Judy, moved to California where Harry became an assistant coach for his alma mater, the University of Southern California, then moved to Canada where Harry was head coach for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The family returned to Columbia in the early 1950s for another coaching position.
Along the way, Smith somehow squeezed in a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education and taught elementary school children from 1964 to 1984.
Harry and Mabel are still married 70 years later.
What’s the secret to a marriage that lasts?
“Both of us have wondered that at times!” she laughs. “You have to be tolerant. You can’t put yourself first all the time ... You don’t have to be the one that always wins the argument. I can say about Harry, they had some rough losses over the years but he didn’t bring it home with him.
“It’s been a wonderful life.”
At 92, she is still bright and perky, and drives every day to visit Harry in a Columbia nursing home. Harry, now in a wheelchair, requires more care than even the capable Smith can give.
“I have to take care of myself to take care of Harry,” she says.
And to keep these precious and vital memories from falling into oblivion.