Pioneering Educator Edith Renfrow, 109, Looks Back On “The Greatest Century We Have Seen.”

Pioneering Educator Edith Renfrow, 109, Looks Back On "The Greatest Century We Have Seen." |


In the dining area of a senior residence, Edith Renfrow Smith, who will soon turn 109 years old, is seated in a leather chair. She is eager to chat about everything, but please avoid asking her how she is feeling.

“Don’t ask me,” she commanded. “I’m healthy. I’m old. Birthdays occur every year, you know.

More than nearly anyone living, Edith Renfrow Smith has seen and experienced more. Two weeks prior to the outbreak of World War I, on July 14, 1914, she celebrated her first birthday.

She has lived through two pandemics, two World Wars, the moon landing, the fall of the Soviet Union, and Barack Obama’s election as president.

She declared, “I believe this to be the finest century we have ever witnessed. “So many changes have occurred.”

The speed of technological development is astounding. She has witnessed the development of radio, television, and the internet, but nothing has ever impressed her as much as her family’s first telephone, which was placed in 1917 when fewer than a third of the population was using one.

She remembered “the phone on the wall.” “I was three years old and I asked my mother what that huge object was. That was really thrilling.

She continues to talk on the phone with pals in her flat at Brookdale Senior Living in Lakeview today. She also prepares her renowned strawberry jam, cans it, and then distributes it to her neighbours.

Chicago is far from Grinnell, Iowa, where her mother worked as a laundress and her father as a cook. Her main points were education and manners.

Edith Renfrow smith recalled that she “never let us call anyone a name, never allowed any profanity, and always be polite.” “That was heavily stressed. Instead of merely saying “gimme,” use “please.”

She also picked up a confidence-boosting phrase from her mother: “There’s no one better than you,” her mother would remind her every day.

According to Edith Renfrow Smith, her mother informed her: “Remember what I told you, ‘there’s no one, no one… You are the only one named Edith Renfrow Smith, despite the fact that they may have far more money, hair, and clothing.

She went to Grinnell College, a liberal arts college just a few blocks from her house. She was the first Black woman to receive a degree from Grinnell in 1937. During the Great Depression, one in every four Americans was unemployed.

She moved to Chicago in quest of work and was successful in landing a position as a secretary at the YWCA. 

You have no idea how many jobs I held from 1937 until 1954, she remarked. I worked for the state, the city, and everywhere else that would pay me more money. I started at the YWCA.

In 1940, she met her future husband Henry Smith. They brought up two girls on the South Side of Chicago.

She eventually rose to the position of sixth-grade instructor at Chicago’s Theodore Herzl Elementary School.

I began teaching in 1954 because I had returned to Teachers’ College to do a methods course, and I did so from 1954 to 1976.

She has been in retirement for about fifty years.

“My retirement has been wonderful because I used it to volunteer and to help because I had gotten so much assistance for my entire life,” she said.

She volunteered for many years at Goodwill and the Art Institute of Chicago.

She has some advice to impart as she marks her 109th birthday: She said, “I’ll tell you one thing. Set a goal. Never listen to anyone who says you can’t.

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