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Dunedin stone carver, 97, practices art of aging joyfully

DUNEDIN

Helen Smith is an intrepid sculptor, boldly chiseling granite faces on Mount Rushmore — at least, according to the digitally enhanced image on her birthday cake.

The sugary spoof was part of a recent surprise party for Smith, who turned 97.

The celebration took place at the Palm Café inside the Dunedin Fine Art Center, where relatives, friends and fellow students in a stone-carving class (where she's been a hammer- and chisel-wielding student for several years) stood up and spoke of her intelligence, independence, feistiness, artistic abilities and knack for telling "a wicked joke."

The vibrant nonagenarian with twinkling blue eyes accepted the kudos with charm and wit.

"How about next year? Same time, same place?" she asked.

Smith has a way of making the other side of 90 look pretty darn inviting.

Besides carving stone sculptures, she lives alone, drives a car, throws Thanksgiving feasts and is an avid football fan, watching four games at a time on three televisions (one with a Picture in Picture feature).

When asked about her secret to successful aging, she responded in jest: "Cigarettes, whiskey and wild men."

"The real key," she said, "is doing things myself. I try not to ask others for help, and I can meet just about any situation."

She lives independently in a four-bedroom home with a pool. Each year she hosts Thanksgiving, putting out her best crystal, china and silver for the holiday that she considers the "happiest day of the whole year."

Her burgeoning family includes two children — Cotton, 61, and Tracey, 67 — six grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and another on the way. Another son, Scott Smith, who would now be 63, and her husband Robert are deceased.

Then there's the 2003 powder-blue Cadillac she drives around.

"She hates old-people drivers," said her son, Cotton Smith of Clearwater.

Always prepared, Smith keeps a "survival kit" on the car's front bench seat composed of blankets, communication gear, Band-Aids, torches, flares, food and tissues.

As Cotton's wife, Patti Smith, put it, "She can do anything. She'll fix a gourmet meal and then go out and fix your car. We call her a Renaissance woman."

Daughter Tracey Smith of Palm Harbor said her mother loves to read science books and nonfiction but is a "bit of a snob when it comes to fiction."

Helen Smith went to the University of Nebraska and obtained a degree in zoology. She was a publicist for a while, and later she and Robert owned some bowling alleys in Pinellas County. But she always wanted to be a doctor.

"I've always had an intense interest in medicine," she said. "I practice without a license."

When asked to explain the comment, she said she diagnoses the aches and pains of her friends and family and then makes recommendations.

"I haven't lost a patient yet," she said.

Her ninth decade hasn't been without problems.

When she was 92, she tripped over a piece of furniture and fractured her hip. She credits her desire to get back to her stone-carving class as a motivating factor in her recovery.

After the birthday party, Smith and her fellow students headed to the art center's "Cottage Campus" at Weaver Park on Broadway Boulevard, where she continued work on her alabaster sculpture of her grandson's wife.

She said each move with a chisel is carefully thought-out.

"You're not creating something. You're releasing something that is already in there," she said. "I love doing this because it's something that will last for a while."

Kind of like you, Helen. Kind of like you.

Contact Terri Bryce Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com

Dunedin stone carver, 97, practices art of aging joyfully 02/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 11:35am]
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