Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

January 16, 2014

Mary Byers Smith: A pioneering storyteller at heart

Andover Stories
Cindy BernsteinAndover Historical Society

---- — Mary Byers Smith (1885-1983) has been described as “a fascinating storyteller and historian” and “an early leader in the women’s movement.”

According to the authors of “Red Cloak for Mother, History of Smith Family in Andover,” her impact on her home and her community is “remembered and revered.”

The second youngest of nine children born to Joseph Smith and Fannie Smart Donald Smith, Smith was the granddaughter of John Smith, co-founder of Smith and Dove Flax Manufacturers in Andover. Her many accomplishments complemented her long life of 97 years.

In the 1920s, she became the first woman elected to the Andover School Committee. She was also trustee of Memorial Hall Library and of the Free Church, where she was a lifetime member.

After graduating from Abbot Academy in Andover, Smith was one of four out of 23 who went on to attend college. In a 1972 interview recorded by Jacqueline Van Voris for the College Centennial Study, Smith said she chose Smith College in Northampton because her friend also was going there.

Her family, she said, was not supportive. “My brothers thought the less you had, the better,” she said. Her uncle who was the rector of Trinity Church, “did not approve of college for women at all.”

But in spite of her family’s opinions, Smith immersed herself in the college culture. Although she had to miss a year because of illness, Smith was elected president of her class of 1908. She developed a longtime interest in her alma mater, serving as trustee and director of the alumni association.

In 1916, Smith co-founded Hampshire Bookshop in Northampton along with fellow Smith graduate Marion Dodd. The bookshop, staffed as well as owned by women, hosted lectures and discussions with authors, including Robert Frost.

Giving up the chance to pursue a career in bookbinding, Smith, who never married, moved back to Andover to help take care of her parents. She began a “professional” volunteer career in social services, which she continued well into her 80s.

She first worked for the state Board of Charity, then Public Welfare followed by the Social Services Department at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and later for the state Board of Education, putting libraries in hospitals and penal institutions.

As an English major, Smith wrote poetry, some of which was privately published in the 1920s. In the 1930s, she took a course in writing at Radcliffe College in Cambridge.

For the course, she wrote and later revised “Family Sketches,” a biography of the Smith Family. Although her grandfather passed away a year after she was born, she lived in the same house and was in possession of his letters from which she could glean insightful details from which to write about the family. Each chapter was written as though she was a witness to conversations and events.

Smith continued to show the same style of storytelling in “The Founding of Memorial Hall Library.” Published in 1943, the piece chronicled how her grandfather was instrumental in the establishment of the library in 1873.

In 1946, on the 100th anniversary of the Free Christian Church, Smith wrote and read an historical paper on the founding of the church. That paper was later described as “a wonderful combination of keen scholarship, affectionate anecdotes and thoughtful reflection.”

In the last 30 years of her life, Smith moved to Boston, and became a trustee for the New England Hospital for Women and Children and director of the Orchard Home for Girls.

At her internment, Rev. Roger Hazelton, professor emeritus of Andover Newton Theological School, spoke highly of Smith.

“I suspect that she was never actually lonesome, for she was singularly able to make others’ good her own, whether in pioneering public service in Andover or Boston, or as volunteer and trustee in school and college work,” Hazelton said.