Kate Smoker was an remarkable and iconic woman of my little berg in Carroll County, Indiana. Many decades after I left the area and settled elsewhere, I think back on anecdotes, lessons (some of parable-proportion), great joys and heartaches of that conservative Hoosier locale!
Having led historical groups and written a few books including two about Carroll County characters, I found myself perusing social media during the highs and lows of COVID 19 quarantine. Admittedly I was in my mood/demeanor of advocating for women in leadership, having just been chastised by a former colleague about the spunky gal AOC who had just been lambasted by elected representative, Dr. Ted Yoho on the steps of the U.S. Capital. What man old enough to be her grandfather, shouts out, “You fuckin bitch” to a fellow elected representative? But after so many years of being in the limelight and a woman boss, I was accustomed to the demeanor, and still eternally hopeful the inherent misogynistic belief that ‘women should know their place’ might change in the age of my daughters and granddaughters.
Well, what did I discover but a Facebook page called, “You Know you Grew up in Carroll County when…”? The first post piqued my attention. The name also brought back hazy memories…Kate Smoker. I found myself perusing posts about Kate! Several were atrocious and mean-spirited but others were keenly insightful, warm and provided lessons about human life.
I was particularly taken by entries of Tina Gilbert Siefert and Mike Swisher. Tina had the thoughtful wisdom to see the multi-dimensions of a human being, and I liked her analogy. She said…Kate lived next door to my Grandma…and you know the character Weeza always reminds me of Kate!
Wow, I thought. Reflecting on the fact that my own retired school administrator’s group led by a remarkable woman leader coined themselves the Steel Magnolias, I pondered on Ouiser (pronounced Weeza). Shirley MacLaine’s character in that iconic movie, Steel Magnolias, Ouiser Boudreaux proclaimed, “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.” And yes, she had a lovable and courageous sarcasm that many envied, and she had long ago shed phony trivialities of earlier years.
Yes, indeed Kate Smoker was Carroll County’s own Weeza. I concurred.
The other worthy social media poster was penned by Mike Swisher:
“Kate was a kind and a gentil soul. I worked for her from the time I was seven or eight years old for fifty cents an hour ‘driving’ her cattle and sheep down Cutler road. Then I joined the Air Force and did not see much of her after that. Kate not only taught at IU of K she also taught at Grissom Air Force Base. I believe she taught GED classes back in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember driving her to Kokomo so she could have a dress fixed by a lady on Armstrong Street then we would go to Laughner’s Cafeteria for supper. She taught me about table manners and how to get along in life. She told me not to be nasty towards people and to treat everyone with the same respect I wanted (even when people looked down on me). She was truly unique and an inspiration. I think about her often and cannot help but smile and laugh at the things she used to do in Burlington. What a hoot!”
“If you knew her, you could not help but love her. I remember getting the hiccups when I was working for her. She waited until I was not paying attention, then yelled at me, scared the hiccups right out of me. I almost peed myself. I am still laughing about that.”
Impressed with what Mike had written, I could see that he was pleased with spotlight on his mentor but wanted to subtly weave the tale to assure the real essence of the lady was revealed to all in a kind manner. Had I still been teaching and Mike were a student, I would have adorned his paper with enormous specific praise!
(Back many decades ago, I grew up on a farm between Cutler and Bringhurst, Indiana in Carroll County. My dad farmed, and my ingenuous mother, owned/operated a Café in nearby Flora. I was called upon to help at both locations and found solace in 4-H until I ventured off to Taylor University, an ultra-conservative college, spurned from Methodism. The odd thing however, is that I began to realize the isolation of Carroll County while there. At the time of my youth, the socioeconomic configuration of Carroll County was one hundred percent homogeneous. Everyone was Caucasian and most were protestant. Admittedly it would take years for me to enter the world of openness, and even after decades, the old prejudices re-emerge subliminally on occasion. My cousin Darlene and I seemed to be the only ones to have ‘flown the coop’ from our clan so we swap stories yet today. Growing up there was protective but also a bit like a Stephen King social experiment. Expectations, deviances from the norm, and even philosophical explorations were non-existent and unknown. I recall only two high school teachers who led open discussions. When first I came home from Taylor spouting Christian Existentialism, my mother was aghast. I digress from my story to share my upbringing, in order that the reader acknowledge my affinity to Kate Smoker!)
Mary Bernice Chittick was born on October 25, 1894, to the town’s prominent physician and his wife. Her only sibling, Beatrice was born four years later. Bernice and Beatrice lived in a cultured atmosphere. Notices of piano recitals, church socials and education abound in the public archives. She chose to attend Kokomo High School because of the quality of education provided at a larger city school. Both Bernice and Beatrice graduated from the Muncie National Institute (forerunner of Ball State teacher’s college) in 1916. She married Jake Elsero Smoker in 1919 at age 25.
Bernice Smoker was a consummate educator. She did stints at Burlington Elementary, Koro Elementary and several other primary schools in the area and then went on to teach for several years at the high school level in Indianapolis and throughout the state. She instructed chiefly as a high school English teacher but also taught math and even guidance. Throughout her career, she consistently attended seminars and training on educational innovations, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree from Indiana University. At one point she was the Welfare Director in the county. Her passion for teaching and taking care of people was a constant life thread.
In the years after she worked in Indianapolis, she taught at the most challenging locations, the Indiana Boy’s School and the Indiana Girls School for troubled and incarcerated children and adult prisoners, and later at the college level. Her philosophy of education was ahead of the time as she frequently spoke at PTA, community groups and other professional organizations and advocated for individual student needs and meaningful curriculum and downplayed rigid discipline. For example, in a 1956 address she said students needed subjects to fit their needs rather than institutional formats. Historical reviews find her teaching in 1917 through 1966, and in the final years of her life she returned to her home town to care for the farm land and livestock she had inherited.
From the contemporary Facebook posts, a few thoughtless folks wrote of their knowledge of Bernice in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. She was a curmudgeon of Weeza genre or perhaps a character that Maggie Smith, iconic Katherine Hepburn or even Betty White would have emulated on screen in 2020. The bozos wrote of her choice of vehicle, an El Camino, her general grooming—missing teeth, red hair in disarray, mismatched clothes, with no brassiere, and her often colorful language. They were generally fixated on her practice of visiting the laundromat across the street from her house, and transporting the clothes basket upon the car hood to carefully mosey on home after the load was complete. A woman who could have purchased many an electric washer and dryer chose to use the laundromat and frankly, didn’t give a damn about what folks thought. She had lived a life of strict conformity and chose to ‘let her hair down’ in the last couple of decades of her life. She didn’t have much of an occasion or interest in cooking or homemaking as she was a professional woman throughout her life.
Toward the twilight years in a time in which she was known as “Kate,” almost as if she preferred a new moniker for a more relaxed part two of her life, and the El Camino appears to be a metaphor for the metamorphosis of the woman and her vehicle.
Iconic, the El Camino became a legendary cult classic—perhaps true of Kate as well? Chevrolet promoted the El Camino as both “beautiful and able to shoulder a load.” It was said to have originated from an Australian farmer’s wife who sought a vehicle that could transport her to church and shuttle livestock to market during the week. Kate as the hybrid—an intellectual who could spout Shakespeare and configure calculus, speak to the public, play bridge and orchestrate contests and events for the Lion’s Club; could also tend to the cattle and perform hands-on the tasks of the farms.
D.L. Avery posted, “She was indeed a college professor and a free American “a sleeper,” for sure. Never judge a book by its cover as Kate is a case in point..”
At a time when norms were rigid for women and brutal, particularly for an old school marm who deviated in any manner, Kate decided to live the later years of her life more freely and not adhere rigidly to the expectations and conformity placed upon her throughout the previous sixty years.
And why not? Fate, had not been particularly kind to dear Kate!
From 1921, until her death she lived with enormous loss! A life changer for her was the 1921 death of her only sibling, her sister, Beatrice Unger. Kate adored her sister and had served as her mentor. They graduated together from the state teacher institute and served as young teachers. Beatrice married Roy R. Unger in 1918 in the midst of the epic flu epidemic. The wedding was held at the parents home and the attendance list was limited because of the pandemic flu. By November of 1920, Beatrice was back at their parents house with the impending birth of her first baby. She wanted her physician father to deliver the baby so she and husband Roy agreed she would reside with the parents until the delivery. A most horrendous labor and delivery, Beatrice’s baby girl was stillborn and Beatrice herself lingered for several days but succumbed to infections from the agonizing birthing experience. Beatrice died at her home with her sister nearby and her grieving father helpless to do more. Many said that Bernice (Kate) was so affected by the death of her sister and niece that she often took a lantern to her sister’s graveside as she recalled that her dear sister had been afraid of the dark as a child. The impact upon the family as her physician father attended to her with the assistance of her mother and sister was enormous, as numerous news accounts reported the community was in shock!
In December 1923, just before Christmas, Kate lost her beloved father, Dr. Andrew Chittick. He died at their home from complications of diabetes. News reports quoted Kate as she discussed that her father had been a patient in an Indianapolis hospital for complications of his long term diabetes. Kate’s father practiced medicine in their home town for forty-three years and had just returned to his practice a few days before he succumbed. A tremendous loss for the community, Kate was then left to attend to the land owned by her father and care for her mother.
Truly the eighteen years from 1923 and 1941 were productive for Kate. She was very active professionally and the social columns were full of notes about she and her husband and their social outings—travel, friends, and commitments, while her husband cared for the land and livestock.
In March of 1941, Kate received a phone call that her mother Cleona had been struck down near the homestead. Hearing that a new bright red fire engine would be passing on the street, Cleona was coaxed by a neighbor to step out of her home to get a glimpse of the fire truck as it passed by. As she started back to her house, a car struck her and knocked her down to the pavement. She sustained several broken bones and numerous bruises and lingered for six weeks in the hospital but never recovered. Highly attentive to her aging mother, she and her husband had attended to Cleona’s needs and visited frequently. Although the loss came when her mother was at the mature age of 81, Kate knew that the passing of this nurturing mother who had always given such unconditional love and encouragement to her life and goals, would again alter perspectives and reality.
Wielding the largest scythe, the reaper came calling again in 1943. Just back from her teaching assignment and settling in for the winter holidays, Kate received word that her husband Jacob was in an automobile accident at Ball Hill near Cutler. Rushing to the hospital, she discovered he had suffered broken leg and arm and crushed chest. Hopeful her beloved Jake would recover, she stayed with him throughout the agonizing week to no avail, as his ultimate passing again trampled her life. Preparing for yet another life-changing funeral, she was reminded that her 52-year old husband was so beloved as a community member and revered in the county for his amateur baseball career with the Delphi Comers and later coaching and managing the county champs in 1928, not to mention his service as a World War I veteran (all of which had attracted her to him!) The goodbyes were excruciating. They had been married just six months short of their 25th wedding anniversary. In retrospect, one wonders about the absence of children. Perhaps the record of severe Scarlet Fever that nearly took Kate’s life in late adolescence or the conditions suffered by Jacob during World War I had rendered health concerns that letft them childless. Their devotion to young people however, was an endearing quality and routine practice. One of the Facebook posts keenly attested to this as Willy Overmyer wrote, “ I shoveled many wagon loads of corn in the 1950’s for fifty cents an hour. Kate was a good person. She offered to pay for my brother a college education.”
Yet Kate persevered! She continued her beloved teaching with full responsibility for the farming. She spent vacations from her teaching assignments at Burlington, and remained active in the community until her retirement from teaching. Her commitment to education lingered; she set up a legacy scholarship trust at one of her favored universities, and donated to the first library in the community-a library that was first housed at her actual homestead!
Chad Wagoner further shared, “I think Kate would have LOVED this thread. She was a kind and decent human being, as referenced above. It is a privilege to have grown up the way we did. I feel a little sorry for the kids today but then they probably feel sorry for us too. They must look upon these things, these relics of our memory-laden pasts, and think it must have been terrible to have grown up without technology, with so many hardships, so fiercely different from today, but it was, in fact, the best days of my life.”
Weeza was beloved and proud of her own individualism—a woman ahead of her time! God Speed, Kate!