A century of memories rooted in Cecil County
Jun 04, 2015 10:11AM ● Published by Richard Gaw
By John Chambless, Staff WriterFrom the front porch of her home in Cecilton, Rebecca Smith can look left and right on Main Street and see the places where most of her life has played out.
At 100, Smith has lived through a century of unimaginable change – and she remembers it all. While slowed a bit by hearing and vision problems, Smith still lives in the house her father built when she was 7 years old. She was born in December 1914 in a home next to the feed store her father operated in Cecilton. That home is gone now, but the family moved less than half a mile away, and they stayed put.
"I guess you could say I'm deeply rooted," Smith said with a smile during an interview in her tidy living room.
With a sharp memory that includes the names of families who originally lived in two of the grand Victorian homes still standing in Cecilton, Smith thought for a moment when asked to recall her earliest memory.
"Let's see," she said. "I believe my first real memory was seeing my mother in the kitchen. She was cooking. She was a wonderful cook. And I remember my brother, who is now dead. I can see him waddling around the house. He was born in 1913 and I was born in 1914."
Smith said she remembers a man coming back to Cecilton from World War 1. "He had lost part of his arm in the war," she said. "His name was Morris Coppage. His father had a furniture store, and he was also the undertaker."
And so, beginning in an era when The Great War was a fresh calamity, Smith began to trace the arc of her remarkable life in Cecil County – her 41 years of teaching, followed by 24 years as a judge of the Orphans Court, and her lifelong love of history and education.
"My father was a very spiritual man who taught us that we must give thanks for what we have, and do what we can for other people," she said. "He ran a feed store here in town, where he sold cow feed and coal. The building is right across from the Zion Methodist Church."
At the church, Smith's name is on the cradle roll. She has attended the church all her life. "I remember when they built the community house that adjoins the church in the 1920s," she said. "I remember when they were digging, and they used a horse and a scoop. It was interesting to watch. I was there when the cornerstone was laid. We put things in the cornerstone – pennies, little things that we children thought should go in there."
Smith has a younger brother, Bennett, who's still living in Aberdeen, Md. He's seven years younger and nags her about living alone, Smith said with a smile.
Cecilton had four general stores when she was young, making the village fairly independent. As a child, Smith loved learning. "I used to read a lot, and I had a teacher who inspired me," she said. "I had a desire to go to college and do something, you know? There wasn't anything in Cecilton. A representative from Western Maryland College visited, and he talked me into going there."
She was one of only 16 in her high-school graduating class in 1931. She is now the only one still alive. "My mother and father went to school as kids in that yellow house across the street," Smith said, pointing toward the window in her living room. They took an interest in education and wanted their children to be educated.
"I worked all four years I was in college," she said. "This was during the Depression. It was a difficult time for our family, because the farmers didn't pay their bills. Carloads of feed would come in to Middletown or some place like that, and he'd have to go pick it up. The farmers would come and get the feed and say, 'I'll pay you later, Mr. Smith.' But we survived."
Smith's father bought a car, "and we'd all pool our money and go to Middletown to the movies, about nine miles away, because there wasn't a movie theater in town," Smith said. The family also had one of the few phones in Cecilton. "Our phone number was 15," she said, laughing.
Smith graduated from college in 1935 and was appointed as a teacher at Perryville High School. "I had to teach five subjects, and I coached girls' athletics," she said. She made $100 a month and paid $7 a week for her room and board in Perryville.
"I remember the first paycheck I got," Smith said. "My father took me to Wilmington and I bought a winter coat. I paid $16.95 for it. That was a good chunk of money. It was one of the best coats I ever had. Leather buttons and all that. I wore it for years."
As a coach of the girls' volleyball team at Perryville, "we had lost 51 straight games when I came on," she said. "Within three years, we were playing in the state tournament. As a coach, I instilled proper attitudes in the girls, and I hope that I taught them some life lessons."
Smith was transferred to Elkton High School in 1943, and taught U.S. history there until 1966. "I taught U.S history and Problems of Democracy," she recalled. "Later on, I taught Economic Geography, and other related social studies classes."
During World War II, her students enlisted right out of school, or were drafted. "And some of them never came back, either," she said quietly.
The war years were a time of feeling "that with your loved ones over there, and maybe not returning, we had a duty to keep the home fires burning," Smith said. "We entertained the soldiers stationed at Aberdeen and Bainbridge. We had five or six Air Force men stationed at the old school in town here to spot planes. Three or four of them lived here in this house because we had spare bedrooms."
During her long career in education, "I didn't think I was a tough teacher, but a lot of children thought that I was," Smith said, smiling. "But they come back to me to say how glad they were, and to thank me for being the kind of person that I was. I get cards telling me how I motivated them to become interested in history. I have been very proud of a number of my students who have gone into public service, too. I taught Walter Baker, who became a Cecil County Senator. I've taught doctors, attorneys, farmers, and some of the present office holders in Cecil County."
She also taught the first black student allowed into Elkton High School. "Schools were never integrated until 1961 or 1962," she said. "The first year, I taught Bernard 'Bugsie' Purdie, who became a drummer. He has been very kind in his compliments about my help during integration. The second year, they brought in an athlete, Russell Reed. He was a good football player."
Despite the racial tensions of the era, "We didn't have any trouble" at the high school, Smith said.
In 1966, Smith left full-time teaching and became a guidance counselor at Elkton High School for the next 10 years. Then her commitment to the community led her to run for a position as a judge of the Orphans Court. When she was elected in 1978, she was the only woman on the three-member panel that reviewed estate settlements. She went on to serve 24 years – 22 of those years as the chief judge.
"I learned a lot of legal things, but one of the greatest things I learned was how families are fractured," she said. "Just horrible things. Brother against brother. To me, it's one of the things we need to mend. I am a great family person."
In the 1980s, Smith volunteered as a trustee at the Cecil County Historical Society, and her collection of high-school yearbooks is a cornerstone of the society's holdings.
While she never married and had children, Smith said, "God has been so good to me. I'm a person of faith, and I believe you should live a day at a time and give it your best. I mean, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, so why worry about it?"
In a lifetime that has spanned horse carts and the internet, Smith admitted she has no need for a computer, and lamented that today's world "doesn't have the human touch. We were family back when I was young. Yesterday, people were eager to do things for you without pay. Today, they've got their hand out, isn't that right? Attitudes are different now."
Smith has visited California, Mexico and Canada, but other than that, she has been happy to stay in Cecilton.
Over her long life, Smith has influenced countless people, and the flood of cards, flowers and good wishes when she turned 100 was gratifying, she said. "But I'm a very humble person. If I have changed one life, then I haven't lived in vain.
"I've tried to live a good life," she said. "The lord has blessed me so much, I can't begin to tell you."