Monday, August 21, 2000

Comedy's natural to columnist




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        BRIGHT, Ind. — Jeanie Smith's mother once went to church without wearing underpants. This is one of Mrs. Smith's favorite stories.

        Then there was the time Mrs. Smith, as calamity-prone as her mom, got tangled in some electric beaters. She went for help with the appliance sticking out of her coat.

        “Oh honey,” says Mrs. Smith, 73. “We laughed for weeks about it.”

        No wonder people can't wait to read her column in the local newspaper, The Bright Beacon. A girlish great-grandma with a halo of soft curls, Mrs. Smith manages to be simultaneously nostalgic, funny and surprising.

        Bright was once a tiny farming community. Now it's a fast-growing suburb of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, filled with families attracted to the reasonably priced housing, low taxes and good schools.

        Mrs. Smith's column keeps city folks aware of a past they will never experience, while reminding old-timers how far they have come.

        “She's just down-to-earth,” says my grandma, Hazel Johnson. “I've known Jeanie for ... oh, since, anyway, 1946. I read her columns and I know just what she's writing about.”

        “It's the first thing I read,” says Andy Kobs, president of Merchants Bank. He's lived in Bright for seven years and concludes, “She has kind of a scatter-brained style, but very humorous and sometimes very touching.”

        Mrs. Smith's mother, Bess Hurley, who died in 1984, has become something of a legend through her daughter's writing. Once, the family was riding to church when Mrs. Hurley got a notion to remove her underpants. The elastic was shot, so she kicked them off and straightened her dress.

        “Mother, you can't go to church without your pants!” Mrs. Smith recalls saying.

        “Well, I can,” said her mother, and went right ahead.

        Mrs. Smith and her husband, Jesse, are still regular church-goers. Her formal education ended after high school, but she always loved to write. Six years ago, The Beacon's editor asked her to do a monthly column after receiving one of her letters.

        Mrs. Smith has reminisced about cars that started with a crank, phone lines shared by six families and mix-ups involving her relatives' dentures.

        Working in longhand, she finishes each piece in one sitting.

        “Jeanie, you use too many dangling participles,” a friend once commented.

        “Cliff, I'm too busy writing to worry about what's dangling,” she replied.

        In one column, Mrs. Smith recalled a childhood shopping trip to Cincinnati. One store had just installed an automatic door. She and her Aunt Ruby had never seen one, so when the door opened, Aunt Ruby looked for someone to thank.

        Straight ahead was a mirror. “Thank you,” she said to her own reflection.

        Then she turned to her niece, saying, “Why, that woman looked just like me!”

        For the next few weeks, Mrs. Smith will take a break from her writing to recuperate from stomach surgery. But she's already pondering her next column. It may be about the lost arts, she says.

        I assume she means something like quilting. I should have known better.

        “We used to have people who charmed off warts,” she says.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.