By Kerri Bartlett, Assistant Editor
Born Jewish in Dresden, Germany, Smith narrowly escaped Hitler’s concentration camps by fleeing to America in 1938 with her mother and father.
As Inge Smith, 89, renowned Franklin educator, waited for an assembly April 5 at Battle Ground Academy Lower School, she got the feeling that something was amiss.
“I just thought I was here to talk to the babies,” she said. Not expecting friends, press and special attention, her vibrant smile curved into a suspicious grin aimed at Clay Stafford, creator of the recent documentary, “One of the Miracles: The Inge Meyring Smith Story” premiering April 18 at the Franklin Theatre. “What are you doing to me, Clay?” she asked.
“’Are you ready?’ said the fox to the hen,” Stafford responded. “It’s a surprise.”
Stafford played the fox, who planned the surprise assembly celebrating Smith’s life and the 90-day countdown to her 90th birthday on the auspicious date of July 4. As he led her down the winding corridor of the school that she founded, she calmly went with flow of uncertainty with charm and grace, just as she approaches all endeavors in her life until she fi nally met the smiling crowd of students, faculty and friends in the gymnasium ready to hear her life stories and sing “Happy Birthday.”
Surprises and challenges have surfaced time and again in Smith’s life, and she faced each one head on with vigor, confi dence and empowerment – the qualities of a heroine, one might say.
She never expected to be the star of a documentary or the subject of a book, Born for America: The Inge Smith Meyring Story or one of the most beloved fi gures in the Franklin community.
“I am not the heroine at all,” Smith said. Some might disagree.
Born Jewish in Dresden, Germany, Smith narrowly escaped the concentration camps of the Holocaust by fl eeing to America in 1938 with her mother and father. There were no survivors in her extended family in Germany. As a young girl, she experienced prejudice, injustice and oppression that she was helpless to fight against.
The threat from Hitler and his growing army ostracized her family further and further from the lives they had made for themselves. The school that Smith loved banned her from attending, and the government seized her father’s small silk wholesale business leaving the family with little hope for a future. Thus, her parents decided that in order to survive, they must escape to America.
(Right) Cameron Gracey, 13 BGA seventh grader, described Inge Smith as a loving teacher at the surprise assembly.
“The only thing that my father was able to take from the store were the scissors in his pocket,” Smith said. “And without education, you have nothing; no future. Education was foremost in my family.” Smith and her parents embarked for the United States in 1938. When the immigration worker saw that Smith’s birth certificate showed her birthday to be July 4, he said, “You were born for America,” and stamped the paperwork with no questions asked. The family soon arrived in New York Harbor on Thanksgiving Day.
Smith’s forward-thinking teaching methods would eventually propel her to the forefront of the fi eld of education, not only in Franklin, where she and her husband had made their home, but nationally. Smith would open two schools in Franklin – Smith Preschool and Harpeth Academy, which later became Battle Ground Academy Lower School. Also, Smith was handpicked by the Kennedy-Johnson administration to create and implement the curriculum for the Head Start program for low-income families, which helped shape U.S. government policy in education.
“There is no one like Inge,” said Diane Parker, an art teacher at BGA Lower School, who worked with Smith for decades. “She was an incredible teacher. She was right about teaching from day one – you teach to the child. She was ahead of her time.”
“If you love what you are doing and have a passion for it, everyone else will feel the same way,” said Smith.
Stafford, a best-selling author whose filmmaking, writing, producing and directing skills carried him to Universal Studios and PBS, discovered that Smith had an important story to tell when he enrolled his children at Smith Preschool.
“I didn’t know all of Smith’s story, but I knew that it needed to be told and that we needed to make a film,” he said. “I think that Inge’s experiences are what make her so special.”
Stafford said he believes that Smith’s drive to make a difference with her life by bringing love and understanding to the world was born in her childhood in Germany as well as the challenges she overcame in the United States.
Inge Smith arrived in America on Thanksgiving Day in 1938 with her mother and father. "Here, we are right off the boat," Smith said.
“Her whole approach to education encompasses accepting all races, religions, beliefs and genders,” Stafford said. “She is a woman, a Jew and a German, all difficult things for the Caucasian establishment to accept. She went from yellow and non-yellow benches to black-and-white entrances. She realized that if this is allowed, [the Holocaust] is what happens.”
Now partially retired, Smith swims twice a week and participates in “the fun stuff” at Smith Preschool. She has three children, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren. She said that she has been lucky.
“Life’s been so good to me. This community has nurtured me and loved me and have done everything to make me believe that I belong here,” she said.
“One of the Miracles: The Inge Meyring Smith Story” will premiere to a sold out Franklin Theatre April 18, with an encore showing April 27 at 7 p.m. For more information, please visit www.oneofthemiracles.com. The book “Born for America: The Life of Inge Meyring Smith” by Inge Smith with Pam Horne is expected to be released at the end of April.
Posted on: 4/11/2013