Reflections on the Life of Beth Smith
I met Beth Smith after Terry and I returned home to Kansas City after six years in New York and New Jersey. In 1981, when she and Marjorie Allen along with the other 10 founders of the Central Exchange were looking for help to break through the 160-member barrier, they asked several people to help identify candidates. Jody Craig and I had become acquainted through Kansas City Tomorrow and she suggested they talk with me. The fledgling CX’s financial prognosis was grim. Dorothy Johnson was keeping the books immaculately in a Harzfeld’s box under her bed and the books showed a growing problem. They had reached 160 members, but breakeven was 225, and the math was simply not working. They were stuck. I was dazzled by these women and the concept and I said yes.
Working with these twelve amazing women and the early members they had attracted in the first year was a great joy. Beth Smith and Marjorie Allen were clearly in the lead of this pack of leaders on a mission. I was in constant contact with one or both. Beth was the steady advisor, encouraging Marjorie at every step. Marjorie was relatively new to Kansas City and Beth, the consummate guide, was an enthusiastic tutor. The Central Exchange began to grow quickly and with our plans for the new location at 10th and Central in the old Fire Station, many new members joined and stayed.
When Marjorie heard a 60 Minutes program on Lupe Anguiano in Texas who was helping women become self-sufficient, after she and Beth talked it over, the Women’s Employment Network was born. They were both excited about this powerful concept, and we all worked hard to create this great organization that thrives today. When Marjorie was diagnosed with cancer, she talked with Beth about the need to ensure the future financial viability of WEN. Some others had also been thinking about a financial resource for women and, once again, the two of them brought all the interested women together to create the Women’s Foundation, which also thrives today.
While the Central Exchange, the Women’s Employment Network and the Women’s Foundation were continuing to grow, I had an opportunity to join Payless Cashways. David Stanley had called Beth and asked about me. Beth must have said something good, because that launched the next 15 years of my work life. But while I was working at Payless and over the years after that, I stayed involved in all three of Beth and Marjorie’s creations off and on.
Fast forward five years after Payless—I had an opportunity to join what was then Midwest Bioethics Center. Again, Beth and I were involved in the same cause. For the next almost decade, Beth was a steady advisor and friend. We joined each other for lunch and shared all that was going on. She gave advice, calmed fears, told me I was doing a great job and otherwise provided the inspiration needed for anyone working for a cause. No other single person outside my family has been as consistently intertwined with my work and volunteer life as Beth Smith. I cannot adequately express the importance of her influence in my life and I will carry her with me always.
Beyond a deep sense of loss, the thing that saddens me most about writing this tribute to Beth Smith is that many who read it will never have known this remarkable woman.
I met Beth approximately 30 years ago as the director of a brand-new not for profit, Midwest Bioethics Center (now the Center for Practical Bioethics). She was an icon in the non-profit sector of our community. She was so revered that I was quite intimidated by her. I’ve never been sure how or why I was invited to a “plowshare leadership retreat” at the Wildwood Outdoor Education Center with a handful of other young/new not-for-profit leaders including: Joan Israelite who became the development director of the Boys and Girls Clubs, Connie Campbell who became director of the Learning Exchange, Alan DuBois, director of the Genesis School, and Gary Baker, director of Crittenton Center, all of whom stayed in the not-for-profit community and went on to make Kansas City a better place.
In my lifetime, I’m confident that I have attended at least a dozen leadership training programs. I have only the vaguest memory of most of them now, but not so with Plowshare. This was a turning point in my personal and professional life and the future of the Center for Practical Bioethics.
The difference between Plowshare and the other programs is easy to pinpoint — it was Beth Smith. It was her belief in the potential of those she had handpicked to attend, the significance she placed on the non-profit sector to our civil society and the importance of well-run not-for-profit organizations, especially those with strong governance structures and financial accountability.
While at Wildwood, Beth said to me, “When the time is right, I will serve on your board.” Rather than being put off by her assertiveness, I was thrilled to death. I remember thinking, “OMG! She thinks the Center has a future. She thinks we can actually pull this off.” Frankly I’ve been to the point that even I was not sure, but I knew if Beth Smith understood the importance of our mission and was willing to help, others would follow.
Beth served on our board for six years and was the toughest board member under which I ever served. She always asked the hardest questions. She knew when I was trying to bluff a response.
Over the years, Beth and I became close friends and she became one of my most trusted confidants until Alzheimer’s took this woman’s genius from us.
Although Beth hadn’t recognized me for some time, she held onto a memory of the Center and associated herself and me with it. On my very last visit, the first thing she said to me was, “So tell me about the Center.” Anyone who knows me knows there is nothing I like to do better. When I paused, she said again, “So, tell me about the Center.” We spent an absolutely delightful afternoon having a perfectly circular conversation, and because of Beth Smith’s wisdom, guidance and enduring love, there was much about which to tell her.