Story by Sherrie Norris
Just days before reaching her 100th birthday in January, Juanita Smith said, “ I never dreamed of living this long. To say that I’ve lived a century just doesn’t seem possible. When I was a small child, I couldn’t imagine even living to be 50. That seemed like a long time for me — forever, you might say. But, now here I am at 100.”
And, those who know her best agree that she has packed a lot of good into those 100 years.
“I’m surprised at myself,” she said recently. “I’m still doing about like I’ve always done, just maybe not as fast. And, I might not remember everything I did yesterday, but I can pretty well tell you what I did 70 years ago.”
And what she’s always done is something for which we all should hope to mimic.
“I’ve just tried to live a life pleasing to the Lord and to treat others the way I want to be treated,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. “That’s the Golden Rule, you know. And I don’t think a body can go wrong to do that.”
While time has slowed her pace somewhat in recent years, she’s still independent in many ways. Her family does not leave her alone for long periods of time, but she does live in her own home — and that’s just where she wants to be.
“Child, I am so blessed to be able to stay here,” she said from the comfort of her home just east of Boone. “My son, Mick, is with me most of the time and if he has to go anywhere, my grandsons and their wives come to check on me. I know I couldn’t make it without them. And I have two wonderful nieces who are always offering to help me, too. I am so fortunate to have people around me all the time.”
Since COVID hit, Juanita said she hasn’t gotten out of the house much, except to get a haircut and visit the doctor.
“I go to the doctor every three months,” she explained. “ I just went recently and got a good report. He told me to come back in June.” With a chuckle, she added. “I told him if I was still around, I’d try to get back to see him. At my age, you never know what to expect from one day to the next. You can’t plan too far ahead.”
When asked to describe a typical day in her life, Juanita said, “I’m just here. I work word puzzles and play a little with that tablet Mick got me, a little computer or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know much about it.”
She also watches “a little TV” and still quilts, but “not much of either.”
And what does she miss most of all? “Law mercy, I miss going to church (Union Baptist) more than anything. Never in my life, since I was a child, have I not gone to church. And now here I am, not able to go. But, I’m thankful to be on their telephone call list and I get cards from them, too. I feel that they still remember me — and that is such a comfort.”
And, she misses driving herself wherever she wants to go. “I had to give up my license a while back, but I hated so bad to do that.”
After a brief pause, she adds with a serious look upon her face, “I’m tired. I’m not wanting to die – don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing left for me to do here. I get up and put in a day and then I go back to bed and do it all over again.”
She is very discouraged with “the way of the world,” she said. “It could be a full-time job just to keep up with what’s going on in our country, not to mention the whole world. It is completely different than what I’ve always known it to be. I’m so ashamed of how people react to one another these days. People have gotten so mean. It’s like if you don’t like somebody, just kill ‘em. I keep telling my son that the Lord knows everything that’s going on and keeps up with everything. I think He’s letting it go, saying if that’s the way you want to do it, just go ahead . . . you don’t have much time left, anyway.”
And current politics? “It’s a disgrace to the American people . . . And it’s not just one side. You can’t complain about one without complaining about the other. They both have done us wrong.”
In a nutshell, she said, “Most everybody is just out for themselves. The love of money is the root of all evil. And people think that money is all they need. But law, no, that’s not the way it is. The majority of the world don’t realize all they need is the Lord’s help. If people would just turn to the Lord, it would make such a difference.”
Juanita has always loved to read and study her Bible, and she still reads it every day, “It’s nearly 60 years old and falling apart,” she said. The margins are filled with countless notes and underlined passages; the pages are wearing thin and it needs a new cover, but she doesn’t want a new Bible. “And I would never think of using anything except the King James version.
“It’s a great story book, a history book, and so many other things, too,” Juanita described. “It is the most precious book that has ever been written and has the answers to all of life’s questions. But you’ve got to read it to find that out.”
She continued, “Sometimes, it is so alarming how the Bible is being fulfilled. It says very plain that all that’s happening right now is just the beginning of what’s going to happen. It is so sad for little children, especially – just think of what they are born into and what all they will have to endure.”
Her favorite verses? Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.”
What does she see as society’s downfall? “Besides turning their back on the Lord, people have let technology and the Internet take over. It’s just a disgrace some of the pictures that come up on that little tablet of mine — and you can’t do a thing about it.”
Juanita “never dreamed” that technology would have such control over our world as it does.
“I remember hearing preachers, years ago, say that the time would come when you could see each other over the telephone. Can you imagine how crazy that sounded? Now, everything is about computers and electronics, I just cannot understand it.”
Concerned for Others
Juanita has a deep concern for everyone, but for the younger generation, especially, “And all the distractions they have in front of them,” she said.
“It’s so easy now for young people to be confused about life – and mostly about their salvation,” she added. “There’s so much out there to pull them in the wrong direction. The most important thing a young person can do today is to realize they are lost and that they need a savior, accept Jesus into their lives and live for Him.”
Juanita’s compassion is for all ages. “I worry about a lot of people, but I’m not one to put anyone down. Nobody is perfect. When someone gets in trouble, I try not to judge them. I just want to help them. I know that I’ll have to give an account of my life and mine only, and what others do is really their business, not mine.”
Everybody is just running in such a hurry, she described. “Everybody has so much they have to do and are under such pressure. They barely take time for what matters.”
And, what matters most to Juanita Smith, if you haven’t already figured it out, is her faith and family. “My husband Gene has been gone since 2014. I still miss him so much and still think back of so many things about our life together. For 72 years, he was my life. But it was time for him to go. When he died, I was relieved for him, and I look forward to going to where he is. It won’t be too long, now.”
Faithful From an Early Age
Faith in God was instilled in Smith’s heart as a child. “I remember thinking I was a good girl, but I didn’t think I was good enough to be saved or join the church. Plus, I was afraid of getting baptized in the Watauga River – it was so big and I just knew I’d drown.”
At the age of 13, on a Sunday night in September 1936, after revival had been going on for a week, the pastor at her church asked her if she had ever been saved.
“It scared me to death. All of a sudden, I knew being good wasn’t good enough. He told me to go home and pray about it – told me to ask God to have mercy on me, a sinner. I went to school the next day and felt so ashamed. I was sure that everybody knew that I was a sinner. That night, when they gave the altar call, I went up front, to what they called the mourner’s bench, and gave my heart to Jesus. On Oct. 4, 1936, I was baptized in that big river and as you can see, I didn’t drown. That is all still so clear to me and I can still remember how scared I was.
Juanita said “preaching” has changed so much through the years.
“When I was a child, the preachers used to preach about hell. They would make it so plain, that you could see it. Nowadays, you can’t hear a preacher preach on hell and really describe what it is. I keep thinking about that and how much preachers are letting people down.”
Juanita credits her mother, “a wonderful Christian lady,” for always making sure she was in church. The family attended Antioch Baptist in the western part of Watauga County. She also became interested in singing, as did her mother, and loved attending the singing schools they had “back then.”
Growing up in Sugar Grove
Juanita was the fourth — and oldest girl — of 10 children born into the Ross and Rosa Lee Matheson family from Sugar Grove; by the age of 12,she was doing all the housework and caring for the younger siblings, while also going to school.
“Mama was sick a lot and was either expecting a baby, having one or taking care of one,” she recalled. “My dad worked off from home a lot and wasn’t always there with us.”
Among her happiest childhood memories include playing music with her family at night after all the work was done. “You could say we had a family band with a guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. I could play a tune on all of them, but I played the guitar best of all — and could still play a little, until just a few years ago. My great-grandson, Luke, brought his guitar over one night not long ago, but I just couldn’t play it anymore.”
It was a neighbor boy, Gene Smith, who caught Juanita’s eye early on. “We were both about 11 years old when he gave me a bracelet that had belonged to his mother,” Juanita recalls with a smile.
The Mathesons moved away from the community soon afterward, but Juanita never forgot about Gene.
“Years later, in 1940, I saw him again at the county fair, and to this day, I still remember him wearing a tan zip-up sweater and denim bell-bottom trousers and a hat. I can see that in my mind just as clear as if it was yesterday. Back then, you didn’t see many boys wearing a zipper sweater. He was really something.”
Gene was in the Civilian Conservation Corps with one of Juanita’s brothers and ended up writing her a letter after they had seen each other at the fair.
“That’s how it got started. I didn’t get to see him much, except for when I slipped off to the movies with my brother and his girlfriend, and Gene met us there. My parents didn’t want me dating.”
Two years later they were planning an early December wedding, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. “We didn’t know what to do,” Juanita recalled, “but married anyway, on Jan. 8, 1942.”
Juanita was working for the National Youth Administration project and was scheduled to work that day, she recalled. “But, I decided to go with Gene to Boone for a marriage license, and then we went back to Vilas to get Rev. Grady Minton to marry us. Gene had an A-Model and it didn’t have a heater. We nearly froze to death! We went on to Elizabethton and stayed at the Watauga Hotel until Sunday.” It was her first trip to Tennessee.
“My parents didn’t know about it. They had already told me that my life was ruined if I married,” she said. “It wasn’t so much that they didn’t like Gene, but I was their biggest helper in the family; they didn’t want to lose me.”
Gene and her parents ended up having a close relationship, she said. “They treated him like he was their own. They never had a cross word between them.”
Soon after marrying, the young couple moved to Portsmouth, Va., where Gene worked in the shipyards; he was drafted into the army in the fall of ’42 and transferred to Ft. Lewis, Wash. Juanita returned home to stay with her parents for about a year before joining him.
A short time later, Gene received orders for the South Pacific; she returned home, again awaiting his return, two years later.
“It was hard on us to be apart,” she said. “We wrote to each other every day, but sometimes it would take a month for me to get his letters. So, much of the time, I didn’t know if he was alive or not.”
In November 1943, after he had returned state-side to Ft. Lewis, Gene came home on a 15-day leave. “He wanted to surprise me, and he sure did,” Juanita recalled. “I had been walking out on the porch every day watching for him, just waiting for the day he would come home, but when he actually came walking through the gate, it didn’t seem real. Instead of walking to meet him, I was so stunned, I just turned and walked back into the house like I had done many times before. I walked around behind the stove and that’s where I was standing when he came through the door. I couldn’t think. I still don’t know why I did that. It hit me hard when he got inside, though. He never let me live that down.”
After Gene was discharged, the couple bought “a little home,” she described, but jobs were scarce at the time, so they moved to Cleveland, Ohio for five years. “We were homesick the whole time and finally decided to come back.”
Gene began working as a carpenter and Juanita took care of the home. Their first baby, born in 1946, did not survive. “It was a sad time.” Their son, Michael “Mick,” was born two years later.
Life as The Preacher’s Wife
In 1963, Gene “answered the call to preach” and filled many pulpits throughout Avery, Watauga and Caldwell counties.
“Being a pastor’s wife to a man that is called of God, is just as important as anything I’ve ever done — whether I did it right or failed, I don’t know, but I was always with him and stood my him,” Juanita said.
She easily recalls March 1, 1963, when Gene delivered his first message, based on Isaiah 53. “I’ve got it marked in my Bible — and every other scripture he used every time he preached.”
But, she remembers, too, that Gene wasn’t saved when they were first married.
“That concerned me, especially when he was called to war, but he accepted the Lord while he was at Fort Lewis. A Baptist chaplain baptized him in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific.
While living in Cleveland, the Smiths found a little church they liked. “Our son Mick, was about 6, and we wanted to raise him in the church,” she said. ”The pastor came to our house one day and asked if I would teach a class. I said no at first. Even the children in that church were so knowledgeable about the Bible and needed to be teaching me, but I needed to be doing something, so I finally agreed.”
For many years following, Juanita taught in the churches they served, mainly young girls and ladies.
“Not long ago, I saw one of those girls and she told me something I had taught her that she had never forgot. That meant so much to me.”
Juanita also loved singing in the church choirs and serving as needed. For many years, “since I was in my 30s,” she made communion bread for the sacred observance, going by a “recipe” that’s in the Bible for unleavened bread
Being a preacher’s wife wasn’t always easy, citing “the hardest thing ever was dealing with the criticism that comes with the job.” But, she tried to never let it bother her, “Because I knew he was always where the Lord wanted him to be. That was enough for me.”
As a bi-vocational pastor in small churches from the 1980s until retiring in 2008, Gene also owned and operated a tractor-trailer; Juanita joined him on many long-distance trips, covering the main 48 states together, which they enjoyed immensely.
When the couple promised to love each other in sickness and health, they were sincere. Prior to Gene’s retirement, his health began to decline; though physically stable, dementia took its toll on his mind. It was “a blessing and a privilege,” Juanita said, to have taken care of him.
“He was always so good to me and protective of me,” she recalled. “He was so gentle, humble and kind. We had a loving, trusting relationship. I looked up to him and loved and respected him for the man that I know he was.”
They had their disagreements “and plenty of heartache,” through the years, she said, “But, we stayed strong in our faith. Otherwise, I don’t know how we would’ve made it.”
Juanita cherishes a box of cards that Gene gave her through the years. “I can’t throw them away,” she said. “He always picked out such meaningful cards for special occasions. He was always sentimental like that.”
A gifted seamstress since her youth, sewing a skill she inherited from her mother, Juanita has stayed busy through the years with her handwork — crocheting, knitting and quilting — especially after Gene’s death. Much of her work has been sold at the craft center at Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock — or given to her family. She has lost count of the number of quilts she has made through the years, but she hasn’t forgotten that each cathedral quilt, her favorite pattern, contains 750 blocks and takes about a year to complete. “I’ve put in several hours making those quilts and everyone seems to love them. “I have formed friendships all over this country through the quilts and the other items I’ve made. I have heard from people from New York, California, Charlotte, and all over who have gotten something I’ve made.”
She is grateful for every connection, every friend that she has made during her lifetime, but most of all, it’s God and her family that keeps this matriarch of five generations going. “I am so thankful for my son Mick, his wife Laura, and my seven grandsons (three of them who are married to wonderful young women). I five great-grandsons, two great-granddaughters, and one great- great grandson. I am blessed in many ways — and am thankful for every one of my 100 years of life. I just hope that I have been a blessing to someone along the way.”
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