Nee Nee, I love you for inspiring me

Published 8:23 am Monday, June 29, 2009

By By Tray Smith
The earliest memory I have of my grandmother, Juanita Smith, is when I was three years old, sitting in her lap as she drove her car in circles around her front yard, making me feel like I was the driver. My mom, who was informed of the incident by a friend who observed our doughnuts, cites the episode to explain why she was always hesitant to leave me in the care of relatives when I was young. However, had I not spent so much time under my grandmother’s supervision, I would never have developed the interests that motivate me today.
Now, instead of pretending to drive her car, “Nee Nee,” as I call her, allows me to chauffer her around the area to visit friends and historical locations. These trips are very entertaining; my grandmother is an intellectual conversationalist and an engaging travel partner. She has not lost the spirit of the history teacher she once was, and to me, her car is a classroom.
Recently, I drove my grandmother to visit Mrs. Annie Bell Copeland. Mrs. Copeland’s husband, Carl, led Nee Nee to Atmore after they met at Mississippi State. A few years later, she married my grandfather, Ralph L. Smith Sr., and the rest, as they say, is history. Or her story, in this case.
One week before former Escambia County High School principal Archie Trawick died, my Mom and I ran into him in town. Nee Nee worked for him as a teacher and a counselor.
Such stories are not uncommon. One of her former students recently recalled Nee Nee explaining that Union general David Farragut did not say, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” According to Nee Nee, he said, “Damn! Torpedoes! Full speed ahead.”
Several of these pages could be filled by other equally entertaining stories. Yet, the most important thing about my grandmother is not her humor, although that is certainly one of her attributes. It is instead the inspiration she has given my life and the qualities she represents as a member of America’s greatest generation.
A founding member of the current Atmore First Presbyterian Church and the Atmore Garden Club, Nee Nee still remains active in both organizations. She also continues to play with the bridge club, although their membership has declined drastically in recent years. While the greatest generation is perhaps most respected for winning World War II and securing the moon landing, Nee Nee’s experience has taught me that they were also responsible for creating many of the civic institutions that have since become essential to our communities.
Over the years, critics have accused this column of being a repetition of arguments adopted from my parents. In fact, it is my grandmother who spurred my political interests, and there are several issues on which we disagree. Nee Nee brought politics to my attention not by debating hot button issues, but by explaining her own life, as a girl growing up in the Depression and living through World War II, Vietnam and Watergate. In the education field, her rise to administration made her part of a nationwide group of women who successfully fought off gender discrimination and cracked that glass ceiling Hillary Clinton talked about so much during last year’s campaign. That is appropriate. Nee Nee is the best proof I have that women are just as capable as men. She is the smartest person I know, and I cherish her every word.
Indeed, I love my grandmother. That is the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a former page in the U.S. House of Representatives. He can be reached at His column appears weekly.

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