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Remarkable Woman: Ann E. Smith

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Firsts come up a lot in conversations about Ann E. Smith.

She was the first African-American woman to win a statewide election in Illinois, for a spot on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Years before, she was the first African-American to be on the full-time faculty at Eastern Illinois University — "It was that long ago," she says drolly — where she taught theater and speech and was the school's first costume designer.

In between, Smith left academia for the insurance business. Within her first two years at Prudential, she earned her way into the million-dollar round table, then started her own brokerage firm with a partner.

Last year, she completed her first Chicago Triathlon. Back pain kept her from crossing the finish line in her previous attempt.

At age 73, Ann Smith is not finished with firsts.

"Each time I've gone into something, it has been something I haven't done before," she said. "Even going into the insurance business, it was (a case of), 'Let me see if I can do this.'"

In the last decade, she has served as president of the not-for-profit Gamaliel, a community organizing concern where Barack Obama received training. She retired in December but returned to assist in a move to new quarters, while training to compete in Sunday's Chicago Triathlon.

"She has had an incredible career; she's successful. And here she is committed to a continual search," said her swim trainer Derrick Milligan, who recently emailed her a video to help her refine her stroke. "She emails me back, 'Thank you for sending this. I'm going to get this.'"

Smith's determination has taught him a thing or two, he said.

"There's no age attached to a student; that quest is without a number," he said.

Indeed, Milligan added, "She's going to be much faster at 75 than at 72."

We chatted with Smith about her achievements, including her participation in this year's triathlon.

Q: How does the triathlon affect your life?

A: I hate to say this, but this is quite a challenge at my age. Last year I came in second in my age group, but let me tell you about that second: It was because there were only two of us in that division. That's inspiring enough for me to go back and do it and see if I can improve. At my fitness center there's a group of us who are now beginning to prepare to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The fact I completed the triathlon has given me inspiration to know that this is another challenge that I'm pretty sure I'll be able to accomplish.

Q: How do you overcome doubt?

A: I think it comes from the fact that practically my entire career has been taking on jobs that no one else had had before, or taking on tasks that were somewhat above my experience. At Northeastern Illinois, I went into administration as the assistant to the president and then acting vice president of academic affairs. At 36, I was the youngest vice president in the system at that time.

Q: How do you negotiate uncharted territory?

A: Growing up in Jefferson City, Mo., I went to a segregated school. My father was the principal. My mother was a teacher at the high school. In order to achieve at that time, you had to do better-than. That just continued to be part of my spirit. There were going to be these challenges, and you just overcome. We were pushed to do well academically as well as athletically. I was on the softball team and played volleyball. My parents just pushed us to achieve.

Q: Did they push gently or firmly?

A: I would say firmly. If you said you were going to do something, then you had to complete it.

Q: Have we lost that as a society?

A: I just remember that when we were kids, we were able to organize ourselves. We had basketball games, touch football games, and there were no adults around. We did it. Obviously, there were some sports that were organized. My little nephew, he's in sports now, and at the end of the season everybody gets the trophy. They may be aware they didn't win, but they still got a trophy. I'm not sure that teaches them really how to compete.

The other thing I have noticed, when we were growing up we came home and did our homework, and we did it on our own. Many of the projects we did weren't as professional looking as the ones that get turned in now, but we did them without parental involvement. In that respect, I'm not sure we're teaching our kids to be as independent as they could be.

So I think that having to do all these things on our own increased our ability to take risks.

Q: Who's your hero?

A: My great-grandfather's story was always very inspiring. He was born in 1842. He was a slave, and somehow or other he managed to serve in the Civil War in the Colored Infantry. And then he went to what is now Fisk University. He became a minister and then a school principal in Tennessee. Several of his children went on to college. We were told he had a fire in his belly and a song in his heart. That meant that he fought against segregation and slavery by trying to provide an education for kids in that community.

Q: One of your firsts was as a costume designer. Do you still sew?

A: Not anymore. Last year my little nieces here decided they wanted to learn to sew. I had to get my machine out. We went to the store to pick out fabric and got a pattern. Some of the parts we had to make up. At the end of the day, one niece had a furry cat hat. Her sister had two big bow headbands. Their little brother, who was 8, learned how to sew, and I made him a vest. It was amazing to me, at 11 o'clock at night, everybody had finished something. These kids struggled and they'd reach an obstacle and they'd turn to me, and I'd help them and then they'd move forward. I was so proud of them.

Q: Will you ever retire?

A: I'm going to tell you about the eight weeks of retirement. What I found was, I missed being in the mix, having people to talk with. The other thing is, most of my friends are younger than I am, and they all work. Even in my typing and my writing skills, I could see them diminishing. So going back, I've actually enjoyed it. I may be one of those people who is not good at retirement.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

A: I always walked. I always went swimming. But I know now that developing muscle and stretching are really important. I didn't start going to a fitness center until about seven years ago. I did it because I had a bout with shingles. I stopped doing exercise for a year because the pain was so excruciating, and to this day I still have the pain. If I had only known the benefits of going to a fitness center, I would have done it earlier.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?

A: Winning the trustee election. It was the year that Reagan was re-elected to the presidency, 1984. I still look back at that because it was a real effort, campaigning and going to event after event for six months. And normally there would have been three Republicans swept in, but I won as a Democrat and got more votes than the other trustee candidates: 2,070,202. That's a number I will never forget. The trustees were so far down on the pecking order, they don't tell you that night. To wake up and look at that newspaper and see, my goodness, I did it, that is my proudest accomplishment.

wdonahue@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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