Miss Myrtle


The Princeton High School Junior Class of 1949 presented a tribute entitled, “The Life of Miss Myrtle Smith” and in the program, the quote below her name said, “To live is not to live for one’s self alone; let us help one another.” Today I want to talk to you about how appropriate this quote is and was for this woman who influenced so many in this community of Jacinto, and beyond.

Cora Myrtle Smith was born April 5, 1900, the oldest daughter of George and Mollie Smith. She grew up in the Jacinto community and lived there for most her life, occasionally leaving to teach school or to take her father to McFadden Springs, near Hot Springs, so he could receive treatments for his health in the 1930’s. Not until Myrtle suffered a devastating accident in the mid-1970s did she leave the home she grew up in, for good. However, she left behind a legacy of the paper kind that has been invaluable to me, as well as to many others.

One afternoon earlier this summer, there was a message on the Dallas County Museum’s Facebook page. A young woman wanted to know if we had any information about the Swaty family, or if I’d ever heard of a community named Swaty. That name sounded vaguely familiar to me, so I forwarded the question to Melrose. She replied she had gone to school with one of the Swaty family members, but I should ask Aunt Doris, who would know more about the family. I wracked my brain trying to recall where I had seen that name, and it suddenly dawned on me. I dug around in some boxes and files until there it was – a piece of notebook paper, yellowed with age, with very familiar cursive handwriting on it. At the top of the page was the heading “Swaty” and underneath was a list of names and a one- or two-word description beside several of them. I took a picture of it and sent it to the young woman, who immediately responded with a big thank you!

I explained to this woman how I happened to have this piece of paper. I told her how my mother had inherited most of the papers that had belonged to her aunt, my great-aunt, Myrtle Smith. Aunt Myrtle had made lists of people she knew, and I found many of them in her papers. These lists were how she kept everyone straight in her mind, their lineage, who belonged to who. Her papers are a wealth of information. For instance, I know from looking through her 1962 appointment book that Nora Bell’s birthday is March 9. She also wrote on the cover, “Saturday, 12:30 P.M. January 26, 1963, Ice on the ground!” I know from a list of phone numbers that she could call Louise Mann at 2-7300 or Mr. Ben H. Owens at 2-3878. She had many long distance numbers listed, also – remember dialing 121 when it was long distance? – and she could call John Steelman at 121-693-5672.

Aunt Myrtle had so many letters – seemingly hundreds, which is probably not an exaggeration – both to her and from her (such as the ones she wrote to her mother while tending to her father at McFadden Springs). I found it interesting that if you had read the letters she wrote, you would know she just had to be the oldest daughter and the oldest sister. You know – they’re not bossy, they just know what you need to be doing, and when and why and how and where you need to be doing it. Myrtle was no exception, and in fact, being a teacher is probably the reason why she wrote her instructions in great detail. In a letter written on October 28, 1935, to her brother, Conger, she wrote: “Wonder what you and Mamma are doing today! Don’t work too hard, or too long without a resting spell. Be careful about your eating. “Tis very important. Use little, if any, grease. Fry your meat out crisp. It’s the grease, not the bacon, that isn’t good for you. Buy and use lots of fresh fruit. Eat an apple or an orange when you are hungry. Drink lots of water. It’s cheap when you consider sickness and medicines and doctor bills!” I love how she is doing what she can to take care of her “little” brother, who at the time was 32 years old. Two days later, she wrote to her mother, Mollie, “… Mamma, how are you? Be sure to take medicine when you need it but don’t take salts. It will kill you.” Even in later years, she wrote her sister and brother-in-law, Connetta and Robert Roach, on how to take care of a poinsettia. She wrote to them on January 5, 1970: “You keep the poinsettia and let it be yours….After the plant’s usefulness is over, place it in a dry place where it will not freeze. Do not water it, or at least, very little, and let the soil dry up. Next May bring the plant out, cut the stem back about two-thirds, wash the soil off the roots and repot in new soil.” I wonder if they did what she said to do. These are good instructions, so I’m saving them for myself!

Aunt Myrtle had a kind heart and a generous spirit, and she shared what she had with those in the community. She had saved innumerable thank you cards within her papers and they all pretty much said the same thing: “Thank you for the money.” She might have tucked in a dollar bill in a birthday card – five dollars if you were graduating – maybe ten or so if you were getting married. She saved many programs from graduations. One was from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine when Rex Norman Moore graduated on June 16, 1952. Another program was from the Henderson State Teachers College Commencement in 1955. In the section where the names of graduates were listed, she wrote “Ones I know” and put a checkmark beside many of those names – including Thomas Marvin Frazier, Laura Glenn Mallett, and Mary Ann Taylor. Another program, also from Henderson, listed Cora Myrtle Smith. In 1957, at the age of 57, she finally had her bachelor’s degree – in Education.

Going back to the thank you cards: One, in particular, caught my eye. It was written in careful penmanship and even though it was not dated, I knew for a fact the writer wrote it in 1972. It was from one of Myrtle’s former students, and it said: “Thank you very much for the five dollars. I can use it when I go to SSC this summer. Can you imagine that skinny little third grader going to college? Again, thanks for the gift.” Well, that skinny little third grader, who wrote this card as a graduating high school senior, would write the following article published in the Arkansas Democrat on April 2, 1975, when he was a junior in college at SSC, now known as SAU, in Magnolia. It was by Eddie Parham as a special to the Democrat and was entitled, “Readin,’ Ritin,’ and ‘Rithmetic.” The article is published in its entirety in the revised History of Jacinto book so I won’t read it now, but here are a few tidbits:

“The small rural schools that dotted Dallas County early in the century have gone the way of wood stoves and coffee grinders. All that remains of some of them are empty buildings, while others are no more than blackened rubble heaps on the ground.

As the rural areas changed, and people left the country for larger communities, these schools were closed and consolidated with larger schools. But, these small country school houses weren’t all that was left behind in the migrations from the country. Along with the closing of these schools went the profession of the ‘country schoolteacher.’

Myrtle Smith of Jacinto is one of these teachers. She taught in the rural schools of Dallas County for 44 years.

Miss Smith’s parents, Rev. and Mrs. George S. Smith, spent several years teaching in some of these country schools. And, their daughter entered her career as a teacher even before she had graduated from the school where she began teaching.

In 1919, with an eighth grade education, she received a license to teach the second grade. However, she was hired by the Mount Carmel school at Jacinto to teach the upper six grades – this meant that she was a student in her first class.

As her students were her contemporaries and older than her 19 years in many cases, discipline became a major problem. She remembered having trouble with a couple who were continuously exchanging letters during class.

‘He was older than I was, and he would always sit in the back of the room writing little notes to his girlfriend, who sat in another corner of the room,’ she said. ‘I caught him one afternoon and demanded the letter. He held the letter behind his back and said that I wasn’t getting it, so we locked horns.

‘I grabbed his hair and he grabbed mine and we went ’round and ’round the room until he managed to throw the letter out the window. The next day, his daddy drove up to the school in his buckboard and wore him out.’

…For the next few years, Miss Smith taught in several of the small schools in the area, among them Eaglette, Midway, Oak Grove, Nix, Ebenezer and Cooterneck. At Eaglette, a thriving lumber mill community in earlier days, she taught the entire school of 55 students by herself.

While Miss Smith was teaching, she was also working on her own high school education at Bearden and Sheridan in her spare time. She graduated at Sheridan Missionary Baptist College in 1928, and immediately reentered to begin work on a college degree.

But, it was 30 years before she was able to receive her degree from college. The depression, family illness and the need for her teaching services kept her from continuing her education.

In 1957 Miss Smith received a degree from Henderson State Teachers College (Henderson State University) at Arkadelphia…

…In 1937, Miss Smith began teaching at Princeton School where she spent the next 27 years of her career. Princeton School was one of the larger rural schools in that area and had absorbed some of the smaller schools that Miss Smith had once served.

Miss Smith retired in 1968.

Talking about her students and her 44 years of teaching she said, “I don’t know how much they learned – but I learned a lot!”

When Aunt Doris was asked by Searcy Smith, her cousin, to say a few words about Aunt Myrtle in remembrance of her back in 1997, she wrote this: “Aunt Myrtle never married or had a family in the way that we usually think of family. All of her siblings’ families were her family. She was always doing special things for them, always bragging about them, always showing her love toward them.” Aunt Doris wrote how Aunt Myrtle was her teacher in the sixth grade, in 1937, the year Jacinto consolidated with Princeton. She said Myrtle was a good teacher who expected a lot from her students but was patient and kind. She said Aunt Myrtle gave her a set of little tin dishes when Aunt Doris was an adult. The box they came in was as prized as the dishes, because Aunt Myrtle had written in the lid of the box: “Aunt Myrtle I want to see your little dishes is what little Doris would say while visiting us on Sundays. My mothie gave them to me. When I am gone, they are for the sweet little niece, Doris Elaine. Aunt Myrtle June 6, 1944. P.S. I’m cleaning my trunk up. M.S.”

Now, not only was Myrtle a schoolteacher, more importantly to her, she was a Christian. She held her church membership at Macedonia Baptist Church across the road, where she served many years as church clerk, just as her mother did before her. I am almost certain she would never have dreamed she would be the topic of the program at the Mt. Carmel Methodist Church’s annual homecoming. Myrtle knew what words to live by, and they all came from the Bible. Among her papers was a simple sheet of lined paper and written in pen were these words:

In facing a crisis, read Psalm 46
When discouraged, read Psalm 23 & 24
Lonely or fearful, read Psalm 27
Planning a budget, Luke Ch. 19
To live successfully with others, Romans Ch. 12
Sick or in pain Psalm 91
When you travel, carry with you Psalm 121
When very weary, read Matthew 11:28 and 30, and Romans 8:31-39
When things are going from bad to worse II Timothy 3
When friends go back on you hold to I Corinthians 13
For inward peace, John 14
To avoid misfortune John 7:24-27
For record of what trust in God can do Hebrews 11
If you are having to put up a fight – the end of Ephesians
When you have sinned read 1 John 3:1-21
And Make Psalm 51 your prayer

In closing, I want to read a little thank you note written on a plain postcard, mailed from Sparkman on July 27, 1970. It reads, in part: “Dear Miss Myrtle, Thank you so much for the picture and beautiful cards. The Roses fit you exactly. Your life has been an inspiration to me. I appreciate you more as the years pass. If we had lots of Miss Myrtles in this world, we would have a beautiful and wonderful world.”

(From the program given at Mt. Carmel’s annual homecoming in Jacinto, Arkansas, on September 11, 2016.)

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