Updated: Aug 19, 2020
By Kathryn Olmstead
Aroostook County lost one of its treasures when Glenna Johnson Smith died August 8 at age 100.
The lives of countless people are richer because they knew her as a teacher, writer, editor, and friend. Glenna’s belief in the value of every human being was fierce. Her students remember her giving them confidence to be who they were, rather than who they thought others expected them to be.
“She’d congratulate us on what we had done right, rather than inking us to death on what we had done wrong,” wrote former student Jeff Nevers in a 1998 tribute. “Along with her desire to bring out our true selves through writing, she tapped the little bud of confidence we each had within ourselves and transformed it into a bouquet.”
Glenna gave the same kind of encouragement to writers of all ages as an editor at Aroostook County-based Echoes magazine. Ever-sensitive to the fragility of self-esteem and the risk inherent in self-expression, she offered suggestions on submissions from writers as personal views that need not be accepted if they compromised the writer’s authenticity. She never found fault without balancing it with praise.
When invited to write a column for Echoes, Glenna set out to celebrate growing old. “I like the sound of the words ‘old woman,’ she said. “They’re strong words—earthy, honest. I’m grateful I’ve survived long enough to label myself by them.”
And so, she named her column “Old County Woman,” incorporating her affection for her adopted home in Aroostook County. For twenty-five years she chronicled her experience of aging with humor, tenderness, and insight that made the word “old” positive instead of pejorative.
Glenna was annoyed by the use of “old woman” as an insult and fed up with condescending stereotypes and silly euphemisms for “old.” She tired of seeing television portrayals of stupid old women who needed a young person to set them straight. She wondered at well-meaning people who greeted her as a “young lady” or introduced her as “ninety years young," as if “in their mistaken way” they thought she wished she were young.
“And why shouldn’t they,” she exclaimed. “Look at the billions of dollars being spent on things to make you look young.” Glenna offered a clear alternative to the obsession with youth that has women (and men) attempting to disguise their age with everything from hair color to surgery.
“Growing old is not a disease or a disgrace, it’s a stage of life,” she told me soon after she turned ninety. “I haven’t seen a decade yet that did not have something good to offer.”
Her choices kept her young.” I get the basics every week,” she said. “I take walks, don’t smoke, and get plenty of sleep.” She said her daily morning exercises to rhythmic jazz “give me energy and make me want to do more.” She became a vegetarian “as a protest against how animals were grown and treated” and found she felt better without the heavy meat that had been a staple of her diet when raising a family on an Aroostook County farm. “I don’t ever stuff down a huge meal,” she said, opting instead for small meals more often and “senior” portions at restaurants.
“With the structure of my working years gone, I have enjoyed the freedom to make decisions,” she said. Instead of fighting and fearing old age, she used the experience of aging as fodder for creative activity. She not only gave voice to elders, but also provided a role model for anyone who hopes to grow old. Imagine the effect on our culture if others followed her example.
“Listen to the words ‘old woman’ (or ‘old man’),” she would tell young people. “They don’t sound so bad, do they? With a little luck and by the grace of God you’ll be one of us some day.”
Kathryn Olmstead was the co-founder and publisher of Echoes and she served twenty-five years on the journalism faculty at the University of Maine in Orono, the last six as associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She is also the editor of the upcoming anthology, Stories of Aroostook: The Best of Echoes Magazine and the author of True North: Finding the Essence of Aroostook, a collection of essays scheduled for release in October.