‘Today is not the last day’

Catching up with Edith Renfrow Smith, who turns 108 on Thursday.

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Edith Renfrow Smith is the first Black person to graduate from Grinnell College, class of ‘37.

Edith Renfrow Smith turns 108 on Thursday and is as sharp as ever. She is the first Black person to graduate from Grinnell College, class of ‘37. Last October, the Iowa school named an art gallery after her.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“Come right in,” says Edith Renfrow Smith, opening the door to her modest single-room apartment on North Sheridan Road. “Have a seat. How have you been?”

Curious about her. I tell her if turning 107 was a big deal, then turning 108 is also worth notice.

“One hundred and seven will be gone in three days,” she says.

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Readers might recall meeting Smith last year: the first Black person to graduate from Grinnell College, class of 1937, a woman who met both Amelia Earhart and Muhammad Ali. Who knew jazz great Herbie Hancock as a baby. Whose grandparents were born in slavery.

She was born July 14, 1914, two weeks before World War I broke out.

“How was the past year?” I ask.

“Fine,” she says.

It was an eventful year. Smith got new hearing aids. “These are much better.” She moved from Bethany Retirement Community, where she lived for 11 years, to Brookdale.

Why move? It’s complicated.

“Thorek hospital bought Bethany,” she begins. “They didn’t really want it. They wanted the parking lot. That’s what they wanted.”

The sale, Smith believes, led to a decline in the food and most everything else.

“Bad news,” Smith says. “Horrible. The heating system was out. The electrical system was out. That’s why I moved.”

She has seen some losses in the past year.

“As a result of old age, I’ve forgotten how to knit,” Smith says. “I can still cook. One of our residents had a birthday on the 29th of June, so I baked her a birthday cake: whipped cream pound cake.”

A new walker is parked by the kitchenette.

“When I moved here, that’s when I started using a walker,” she says. “My walking is not strong. I’m taking physical therapy now, so it’s getting better.”

Edith Renfrow Smith in her new apartment under a painting of her mother, Eva Pearl.

Edith Renfrow Smith in her new apartment under a painting of her mother, Eva Pearl. She moved recently after 11 years at Bethany Retirement Community.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

How does Smith pass the time? She reads. A copy of “The Last Thing He Told Me,” by Laura Dave is open by her side.

She doesn’t drive, having finally given up her little red Fiat.

“I loved to drive, and I drove the city and anywhere else.”

Does she get out much?

“I can’t go anywhere,” she says. “After you get over 100, they don’t want you going anywhere, unless you have somebody to go with you. I get out when anybody wants to take me.”

Such as July 31, when she’ll have lunch with two friends from when they volunteered together at the Art Institute in the mid-1990s.

No, she doesn’t go to church anymore, though she belongs.

“The Chicago Temple is my church,” she says. “Every quarter they bring me communion.”

Anywhere she wishes she could go?

“I don’t care to go,” she says. “I have been. I’ve been all places where I could go.”

As we talk, it turns out she isn’t being 100% accurate. For instance, in October she took a quick jaunt to Iowa to attend the dedication of Grinnell College’s Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 Student Art Gallery, renamed in her honor.

In 2019, Edith Renfrow Smith received an honorary degree from Grinnell College; in 1937, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Iowa school. At left is Michael Latham, who was then then dean of the college.

Edith Renfrow Smith received an honorary degree from Grinnell College in 2019; in 1937, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Iowa school. She returned to Grinnell in 2021 for the dedication of an art gallery named after her.

Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

“They had an exhibit of my life,” she says.

Looking ahead to the year, anything on the calendar? Well, Saturday, for starters.

“Two people from Grinnell are coming for my birthday, to bring pictures of what Grinnell was like when I was a young girl.” She not only attended school there, but was born and grew up in the town.

Any words of advice to Chicago from a woman with memories of 1918?

“What they need to do, is the thing that Jesus said: ‘Love everyone as much as you love yourself,’” she says. “But everybody seems so upset. No one likes anyone else. All this shooting, it’s so ridiculous. It’s just awful. You dislike what people do, but love the individual.”

Anything else?

“Just remember, this is a wonderful world, and you need to take care of it. These old men in office, do something about all these guns they’re letting them manufacture. All the things that are harmful to people. Just remember, there’s tomorrow. Today is not the last day.”

Realizing there’s no way to top that, I get up to go.

“Take a glass of jelly, if you like it,” she instructs me, and I take a jar of red grape jelly from a foursome on the kitchen counter. “That’s nice on your toast.”

“Thank you so much,” I say. “I will see you next year.”

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