From Queen for a Day to community projects, Estelle Smith has led a full life
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Estelle Smith is a doer extraordinaire when it comes to helping her community or getting involved in meeting the needs of those less fortunate.
For example, she was busy filling ditty bags when this reporter arrived at her home for an interview recently. She explained that the small toys and games, stuffed animals, matchbook cars and other items she was putting into the bags are given to young burn patients on the first day they are admitted for treatment at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colo. "These items help entertain them and keep their minds away from the terrible ordeal they are having to go through," she pointed out.
The project is sponsored by La Premier North Alabama 824, of which Smith is a member. She is joined by other American Legion Auxiliary members from Hartselle, Decatur and Athens. "We do this every year," Smith said. "The gifts are donated by partners and we fill and ship around 25 bags."
Local 824 is an affiliate of La Boutique Des Huit Chapeaux et Quarante Femmes, otherwise known as Eight and Forty. It was organized by a group of leading American Legion Auxiliary women, including the first national president, in June 1922 to be a sister organization to the American Legion's 40/8. The 40/8 officers' titles were derived from the French railway system that transported troops during World War I and could fit 40 men and eight horses in one boxcar. Therefore, the Eight and Forty also used French titles. Since they were in no way connected with railways it was decided to use French titles relating to hats. Consequently, the first national president was known as Le Grand Chapeau (the big hat).
The organization's constitution and bylaws were later changed to specify that the 8/40 "shall be an organization composed exclusively of women of the American Legion Auxiliary in good standing…for wholesome relaxation of mind and spirit." In 1923, with 38 states being represented, a child welfare program was adopted. In 1932, the Eight and Forty took on the special assignment "to assist in the prevention and control of tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, lung and other respiratory diseases in children."
Smith is also a very active member of the Auxiliary of the John F. Thompson American Legion Post 52 in Hartselle. She has served as membership committee chairman for all but one year since the Auxiliary was organized in 1963.
"We started with five or six members and met in our homes," she recalled. "There was not a lot of interest among wives and widows of veterans. Then we decided to take the advice of Lawson Lynn, the state commander, and begin meeting with the Legionnaires at the Legion home. But before we did that, we had to clean up the place. It was a mess. We borrowed a truck and made several trips to the city dump before we were done."
As membership chairman, she heads up the effort to collect membership dues on an annual basis as well as the recruitment of newcomers for both the Legion and Auxiliary throughout the year. She tries hard not to let any prospective member fall through the crack. "They just turned it all over to me a few years ago," she said. "I'm committed to membership growth because the Legion and Auxiliary do a lot of good in the community. And if we don't keep our membership up, they'll go dead."
Her involvement as an Auxiliary member also extends to programs and projects aimed at helping to meet the needs of disabled veterans. She and other Auxiliary members make periodic visits to disabled veterans who reside in local assisted living facilities and nursing homes and provide personal care items when needed. They also sponsor a "Poppy Day" in conjunction with Memorial Day. They purchase artificial poppies, which have been made by disabled veterans at a VA home in Tuscaloosa, and distribute them in return for a donation.
"We send back to the VA home a percentage of the donations we receive," Smith stated. "Of the reminder, we send $100 to each of five VA hospitals in Alabama and Mississippi and put what's left in a scholarship fund."
As a member of First Baptist Church, Smith repeatedly reaches out to others in need and can often be seen with a child not her own seated next to her during a worship service. "I think church is the place to be for everyone on Sunday, especially children," she said. "I have always tried to be available to a child who has no way to get to church or who needs someone to accompany them.
"You never know when you do something for someone when it might come back to you as a blessing," she said. "I was in a store in Decatur recently when a young woman came up and asked me if I knew who she was. I didn't recognize her until she told me I was the lady who picked her up and took her to Sunday school when she was a little girl. She thanked me and gave me a big hug."
Smith shares her big, two-story white House on Rock Street with two handicapped boarders. They have rented rooms from her for 50 and 20 years, respectively. The rent they pay hasn't changed over the years even though housing costs have.
"They're like family and I do what I can to help them," she stated.
Her mother owned and operated Hunter's Boarding House on East Main Street in the 1950's and 60's. "Mother rented rooms for $3 a week," Smith recalled, "but she would take in anybody who needed a place to stay even if they had no money to pay, and she'd feed them, too, if they had no money to buy food."
Smith has been visible to voters as an election official for over 50 years. She registered and voted at the Penn Schoolhouse precinct in 1942. She has voted in practically every election held since that time, as well as helping to conduct elections in one of Hartselle two voting centers.
After working at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville as a chauffeur during the early years of World War II, Smith launched a successful business career in Hartselle. She owned and operated three restaurants-City Grill, Dinner Bell and Ms. Smith's Restaurant-during a 15-year period in the 1940s and 50s. During the same time, she and her husband, Frank Smith, owned and operated a florist shop. Ms. Smith's Restaurant was the first such business in town to have air conditioning.
She recalled soliciting $5 donations from local businesses in 1955 to buy the town's first lighted Christmas decorations and helping to produce the town's first Christmas parade.
The Smiths gave up their business interests in 1958 to relocate to Arizona, due to Frank Smith's health. They returned three years later and Mr. Smith died in 1962. A year later, she opened a florist business in the garage of her home. It remained in business for several years.
Smith attained celebrity status in 1948 when she was chosen as alternate Queen for a Day in Los Angeles, Calif. How she got to California and got on the popular television show is an interesting story.
"Keller Motors was showing a new line of cars at the Packard-Bell Center in L.A. and needed drivers for the return trip," Smith recalled. "I thought it would be a good opportunity to see some of the country and volunteered to go. Frank and I were dating at the time and he was employed by Keller. That made the trip even more exciting.
"I boarded the train in Hartselle and headed west. I had a stopover in El Paso, Texas and decided to cross the Mexican border and do some sightseeing. That was a mistake because it delayed my arrival and created a stir at the L.A. train terminal when I did not arrive on schedule. Several phone calls were made from L.A. to Hartselle in an effort to find out where I was.
"After I arrived, I set out to get tickets to the Queen for a Day show. We managed to get four tickets. Errol Flynn was a guest that day. When I registered I wrote that my purpose for being there was to get married. I was the second woman called down and wound up being named the alternate Queen for a Day. I received several prizes including a Filter Queen vacuum cleaner, which I have saved to this day as a keepsake."