Love of books keeps 102-year-old librarian working

In a time when nothing seems to last anymore, the world still has Martha Smith.

In 1926 she took a job at the tiny Coal Creek Library in Vinland, Kan. Eighty-two years later, she’s still there.

Smith is 102 now. She wears a hearing aid and needs an oversized pair of magnifying goggles to read. She has to bend over so far to walk her eyes stare straight at the ground.

Others might have retired 30 years ago. Not Smith. She still shows up every Sunday to put in her hours at the 400-square-foot, one-room library 10 miles south of Lawrence.

Sure, she took a break in 1944 to raise her only son, Edwin. But she returned in 1956 and has been there ever since.

Loyalty? Permanence?

Let’s put this in perspective.

Smith was working at the Coal Creek Library — founded in 1859 and now the oldest continuous library in Kansas — when the old millennium turned to the new millennium. She was there when the Internet first came online. She was there for Watergate and Woodstock, when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, and Sputnik streaked across the night sky. She was there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and when FDR announced his New Deal. And when the Great Depression brought soup lines and social strife, she was there as well, helping patrons and shelving books in the very same building that still stands today on the quiet Kansas prairie.

She has been there so long the Kansas Department of Human Resources honored her with an outstanding older worker award as the oldest female worker in Kansas.

That was six years ago.

Ray Wilbur, president of the Coal Creek Library Association, said Smith is one of a kind.

“She’s loyal, she’s diligent, she’s always optimistic and cheerful,” he said. “What’s not to like?”

Green grass of home

Smith was born in a white farmhouse on a hill southwest of Vinland. Her mother gave birth to her in the parlor in 1905 — when homes still had parlors. When Smith was born Teddy Roosevelt was president, Oklahoma wasn’t a state, the average worker made less than $500 a year, and less than 15 percent of all homes had a bathtub. But Smith is not only of another generation, those her know her say, she’s of a completely different mind-set.

Mountains? Oceans?

Smith hasn’t seen them. She’s also never flown in an airplane. The farthest she’s gotten away from Kansas is Nebraska.

It might be nice to see an ocean or fly somewhere sometime, she said. But if she never does, that’s OK, too. For more than a century, Vinland has been her home. She hasn’t needed much else. And so it was that Martha Cutter Kelley Smith never ventured far from her prairie home or the library that gave it meaning. For Smith, the grass was never greener than right under her feet.

At 4 feet 11, Smith is not large. But she’s huge in the hearts of those who love her. Jean Moore, who lives north of Vinland, has known Smith for more than 40 years. They met at the Vinland United Methodist Church, where both are members.

“She’s a good Christian woman,” Moore said. “Every Sunday, even at her age, she gives us an update on what our missionaries are doing. She tells us about one missionary every Sunday.”

Likewise, Moore tells others about Smith. One of her favorite stories is when the church got an elevator about 15 years ago. Smith refused to get in it. Even when the church hosted a 100th birthday celebration for her, Smith remained defiant.

“Her sister said, ‘Let’s go in that elevator,’ ” Moore recalled. “And Martha said, ‘You just go on and get in that elevator. I’m going up the steps!’ And she did. She’s a spunky old gal.”

So how does it feel to be 102?

“OK,” she said in an upbeat voice.

She’ll turn 103 Sept. 15.

Preserved in time

Stepping into the Coal Creek Library is like stepping back in time. From the potbellied stove in the back to the handcrafted real wood shelves, it is substantially the same today as it was 100 years ago.

There are 3,790 books there. Smith knows. She’s counted them.

Coal Creek is no longer an active public library. It functions more as a museum and is open Sunday afternoons, April to October. If you go on Sundays you can meet her. She’s the white-haired woman with the welcoming smile. She might be sitting in a chair talking with her son or straightening up.

If she’s up to it she can show you the library’s collection of historical books. They sit under a glass case on a wooden table. There’s

English Traits Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands An Overland Journey From New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859

by Horace Greeley (1860) and many more.

In many ways the library is one of the only things Smith has left besides her son. Smith’s husband, Cecil, died in the 1980s. Her three younger sisters, Anne, Katharine and Edith, all died before her, as did most all her friends.

Besides her work at the library, Smith has dedicated her life to making things better in her community. For years she walked with ski poles and picked up trash on the side of the road by where she lived. Later, after switching to a walker, she continued to patrol the roads, collecting aluminum cans.

Today she is just happy for each new day. She never expected to live this long. After all, the average life expectancy for a woman born in 1905 is 50 years.

Smith has more than doubled that.

Her secret: She eats lots of fruits and vegetables and still walks six blocks every day. Oh, yeah, she also went to the chiropractor every two weeks for the last 50 years.

And she gave up gravy.

So, any advice for anyone wanting to lead a worthwhile life?

She leaned in.

“John Wesley’s motto,” she said in a small voice, paraphrasing a quote attributed to the Methodist founder. “Do all the good that you can to all the people that you can by all the ways that you can and by all means that you can as long as ever you can.”

And, finally — what would Smith like people to remember about her?

A small smile sneaks across her face as she thinks in silence for half a minute before answering.

“That I was cheerful,” she said.

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