Special People, Special Places: 80-year-old woman goes the distance

Sunday, February 1, 2009
To commemorate her 80th birthday, Mary Ann Smith of Charleston, Mo., went on an 80-mile bike ride with friends and family.
Submitted photo

Southeast Missouri is defined by its special people and special places. One of the special people of our region is Mary Ann Smith of Charleston, Mo. Mary Ann is a model of how to age with dignity, intellect, strength and achievement.

In June, Smith commemorated her 80th birthday by joining members of her family on a bicycle ride -- 80 miles in a single day. The commemorative ride began shortly after daylight and ended at dusk when she was greeted at her driveway by a gathering of neighbors, friends and relatives, all of whom delighted in her achievement.

She recalls there was so much cheering and applause at the driveway reception that she was concerned that it would disturb the neighbors, until she realized that they were all there to greet her.

"I always surprise myself," she said.

Also surprised were her two brothers, nephews, nieces and cousins, some of whom accompanied her on the ride.

Smith is proud of her Southeast Missouri roots. She is a direct descendant of Thomas English, who came to the region in the 1790s and is buried in the English Cemetery south of Cape Girardeau. Her great-grandfather, Albert English, is buried in Old Bethel Cemetery near Jackson. She is proud to document the family connections to the Swanks, Goodins, Moores and Smiths, who played key roles in developing the region.

Her father, David English Smith, graduated from Washington University School of Medicine and served as a physician in the U.S. Army during World War I. Following the war Dr. Smith and his new bride, Susan Myrtle Goodin, briefly lived in Fayette, Mo., but then, because his wife loved Charleston so much, the young couple moved back to Mississippi County.

But economic times were difficult and Dr. Smith accepted a position as a physician with the St. Joseph Lead Co. in Bonne Terre, Mo., serving there until his death in 1944. It was in Bonne Terre that Mary Ann was born, the youngest of three children.

Smith graduated from Lindenwood College with degrees in English and biology, spent a year at Washington University, transferred to Vanderbilt and in 1966 received a degree in business administration from George Peabody University, where she discovered her love of and ability in accounting.

She is a lady of many interests: accounting, agriculture, animals (especially horses and dogs), genealogy, reading, exercise and bicycling.

Her experience with extended bicycling trips began as a youngster when she joined friends to ride across the eastern United States, the British Isles and France, Switzerland and Italy. At the conclusion of that sojourn she hung up her bicycle and did no riding for years.

In 1977 Smith moved to Charleston to help care for her mother, who had returned to her hometown and built a new house.

Although she is now the epitome of good health, Smith suffered a severe bout of Cron's disease in 2002 and was not sure she would ever walk again. But she did get up and walk, an exercise that bores her. In 2005 to help restore her health she took her bicycle down and began riding again. By the end of the summer, she managed to ride 15 miles in Mississippi County's Tour de Corn festival. In 2006 she rode 60 miles in a single day, and thus established a goal of 80 miles for her 80th birthday in 2008.

Clearly, Smith is a person who loves exercise and activity, and while she might be more comfortable on a horse than a bicycle (she owned and rode horses until 1994), she is convinced that bicycles are easier to take care of than horses. In her view, bicycling is one of the easiest and best all-around exercises available.

But, with a family heritage of long life (she has ancestors who lived well into their 90s, and some even older than 100), one has to wonder what Smith will do to commemorate future birthdays. She said that if she makes it to the century mark she thoroughly expects to be riding a bicycle.

Frank Nickell is the director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. He studies the history of Southeast Missouri and the people in it. You can also hear his award winning program, "Almost Yesterday" at 7:49 a.m., Wednesdays on KRCU, 90.9 FM and KSEF, 88.9 FM, Farmington.

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