by Patricia Perry
The quiet rural community of Massapequa was transformed when an energetic young Katharine Smith and her husband Warren moved to 90 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1919. This small unassuming woman would greatly influence her community and inspire friends and family throughout Long Island and far beyond. Katharine’s convictions for basic human rights were molded by her father who championed the rights for laborers and workers of the fishing and lumbering industries of Washington State. Both Katharine’s parents encouraged reading and expected her to work on the farm which supported the family. Katharine financed her college education by teaching 18 students in a poor lumber community, married Warren and lived in mining camps in Canada and West Virginia before they moved Massapequa.
While her geologist husband traveled around the world, Katharine raised seven children, without automatic washer, dryer, dishwasher, television and with a coal burning furnace, and organized the Massapequa Mother’s Club, led 4-H activities, and participated in a book club and the local chapter of AAUW. She rode the train to New York City and met leaders of new progressive organizations, the ACLU, NAACP, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and invited her City friends to Long Island and attend backyard picnics at her home.
She also joined the Socialist Party and was designated a candidate for the NYS Assembly in 1931. As she campaigned door-to-door she was saddened that so few Massapequans shared her concerns for the “poor and downtrodden.” But she was not discouraged and continued to campaign for social causes. During the Depression she applied to work for the new county department for home relief which became the Department of Social Services, retiring in 1962. While she worked, her home continued as a headquarters for meetings and guests. In the 40’s she attended services at the Bethpage Quaker Meeting House and became active in that congregation. Whenever possible she and children would travel to West Coast relatives by train and later by car and camping, never at a motel! She taught her children the names of plants and birds and maintained a concern for protecting the environment.
Most of Katharine’s present day admirers remember her as a gracious hostess who was knowledgeable about current events. She read magazines, newspapers, books and all mail requesting donations. She responded with a contribution to most, as well as long hand written letters of support and encouragement. She also wrote frequently to legislators with praise or criticism as she felt was deserved.
It is well known that she deeded part of her property for the Massapequa Central Branch Library. She was an early supporter of a 60’s civil rights group, the Massapequa Committee for Inter-group Relations. After the death of Warren in 1965, Katharine explored opportunities for her home to be a permanent peace center. In 1971, she gathered friends around her dining room table to form Peacesmiths, Inc., to promote civil liberties, civil rights, peace and the environment, and allowed space in her basement and home for meetings. Still searching for a permanent occupant for her house she formed The Katharine Smith Fund in 1987 to make the decision in case of her demise. Fortunately, Katharine lived to find her own solution. The Long Island Progressive Coalition accepted her property around the time of her 100th birthday and Katharine was most pleased that the home that had sheltered her family and guests and activities would continue to shelter those seeking to improve society and that she lived to attend the dedication of The Katharine Smith House in 1994.
Katharine’s legacy will continue as long as others share her concerns. In her own words delivered at the 100th birthday celebration, “There is so much to be done. My message to you younger people: keep courage; keep yourself ready to do what has to be done… Use your intellect to work… to find the directions in which our solutions will come. Support to the extent of your ability the agencies and fellowships which help to build a better world.