Passion for history comes naturally for Donora native Judy (Russell) Smith
To say Judith R. “Judy” Smith has long been a student of history might well be an understatement.
She has been part of historic times on the local and national scenes throughout her life.
“My father always said that history is people,” said Smith, a Donora native now living in New Braunfels, Texas. “He knew stories about so many people and he instilled in me a desire to learn as much as I could about others from all walks of life, in our community, across the nation, around the world and throughout history.”
Smith is the daughter of the late James K. “Jimmy” Russell and Ethel Mary Fesemyer Russell.
Her father was the legendary football coach at Donora (1931-1964) and Belle Vernon Area (1965-1968) high schools. But he was also widely respected as a classroom teacher.
“Dad's passion was coaching, no question about that,” said Smith, a 1956 graduate of Donora High School. “But he took as much pride in his role as a teacher of American history as he did in his football teams. He wanted his students to learn, to understand the importance of history in our lives and the people who created history. He had a lasting impact on so many young people.
“I can't begin to tell you how many of his former students at Donora High got in touch with him or came to visit him and thank him for what he had done for them as a teacher. This continued for many years after they had left town, gone to college and moved elsewhere. Not long ago, I received a received a very poignant letter from a longtime friend who had terminal cancer. He said he just had to tell me what a wonderful teacher my father had been. It was a beautiful message and I will always treasure it. My friend died not long after sending the letter.”
“My grandparents (James S. Russell and Anna Walker Russell) moved to Charleroi when my father was six years old,” Smith said.
Her father returned to Charleroi after graduating from Notre Dame in 1929.
Russell also met his future wife, Ethel Mary Fesemyer, at Donora High School, where she taught French from 1929 to 1933. The daughter of Arthur and Jessie Gates Fesemyer of Donora, she was an outstanding basketball player at DHS and captained the 1925 women's team. She was a 1929 honors graduate of Seton Hill College in Greensburg and attended graduate school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“Mom and Dad were married on June 7, 1933, and were married nearly 57 years when she died on Feb. 9, 1990,” Smith said. “She resumed her teaching career in 1950 and taught at St. Dominic and St. Charles Catholic schools until her retirement in 1969.”
Smith did not immediately follow her parents into teaching. She graduated from Seton Hill College in Greensburg in 1960 and earned a master's degree in English from Duquesne University.
“I had given some thought to becoming an editor,” she recalled. “I really wasn't sure of what I wanted to do.”
In 1965, she accepted a job in the office of Thomas R. Balaban, parliamentarian of the Pa. House of Representatives in Harrisburg.
“They were looking for someone with a degree in English and a strong background in writing to work on research projects,” Smith said. “It seemed liked the perfect fit. The parliamentarian is responsible for advising the Speaker of the House on the minutiae of the operations of the House as well as all parliamentary procedures. It was challenging work at times but I enjoyed being on the front line of the legislative process.”
Another indelible – albeit bittersweet – experience evolved in 1968 when Smith worked on the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
“I always had a keen interest in politics and it was exciting to be working on the national stage in a presidential campaign during such a pivotal time in America,” Smith said. “Sadly all of that ended when Bobby was assassinated on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles. His death was a tragedy for his family, of course, but it also had a lasting impact on the thousands upon thousands of people who believed in and embraced his goals and ideals for a brighter future for our country. Even today, all those years later, we still think of what might have been.”
Smith attended Kennedy's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
By 1972, Smith had transitioned to the state Department of Corrections as its director of information and liaison with the Legislature.
That move brought her future husband, Ronald Smith of Irwin, into her life.
“He was a very personable young man, intelligent with a great sense of humor,” Smith recalled. “He eventually asked me out and our very first date was attending a Penn State football game.”
The couple married in December 1973 and their only child, Theodore Russell (Ted) Smith, was born on Aug. 27, 1974. “Ted graduated from Ohio State University and taught and coached on the high school and college levels for several years,” Smith said. “He was a student coach at OSU the year they beat Notre Dame. Because his wife's parents lived in Texas, they decided to move there.
Ted looked for teaching jobs in the San Antonio area but opted instead to take a job with a petroleum company and has been doing very well in that capacity the past three years.”
Ted and his wife, Lorien, are the parents of a son, Luke Noah Smith, who is Judy and Ron's only grandchild. The family lives in San Antonio.
“He's just adorable,” Smith said of her grandson. “Ron and I decided to move to Texas to be closer to Luke and his parents.”
They had lived in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, Ohio, for many years before moving to New Braunfels earlier this summer.
They are planning to move to a permanent home in San Antonio.
Smith began a belated teaching career in the Cleveland area.
“The Board of Education was looking for a full-time replacement for a gentleman who was retiring,” she said. “The man who interviewed was checking my resume and said, ‘I see you're from Donora, PA. Do you know Bimbo Cecconi?' I did, of course, because Bimbo was one of best athletes in Donora High history and was part of those WPIAL football championship teams my dad coached in 1944 and ‘45. The man told me he attended Pitt when Bimbo played there and had visited Donora on several occasions because Bimbo would invite friends to his home to enjoy his mother's Italian cooking.”
Smith, who holds membership in national honorary societies for English and history, accepted the teaching job at Glenville High School in Cleveland. Ensuingly, she taught reading, English, history and U.S. government before retiring 11 years ago. She also taught on the college level in Cleveland during her 17-year career in education.
Her husband is retired after careers as a speech therapist and in the energy industry.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.