From a young age, Dorothy Smith knew the virtue of patience.
When she was 13, the small-town girl had to put off high school to help her father with the family farm near Hanska, Minn. One year turned into two, but Smith never lost sight of her goal: a high school diploma.
“I came away from the experience knowing that I could do anything I had to do, no matter how difficult. I learned that I could wait if I had to, and that I could face life’s barriers and overcome them,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Whispering Hope.”
Smith went on to spend nearly 40 years in the classroom teaching elementary students to read, first in rural one-room schoolhouses and then Owatonna’s bustling school district. She died March 8 at age 98 at the Brookdale Sterling House in Owatonna.
The oldest of five children, Smith found reading magical as a child and devoured every scrap of writing she could find, whether newspaper ads, her mother’s cookbooks or the church’s annual report. She attended New Ulm’s Trinity High School once her parents could afford room and board and became the first in her family to get a college diploma when she earned an education degree from what was then the Mankato State Teachers College.
After various teaching jobs, she went to work at Josten’s in Owatonna examining rings and met Les Smith, a tool and die maker and machinist. They were married for 44 years before he died in 1991.
Smith was quickly drawn back to teaching, eventually becoming a reading specialist and principal at Mankato’s Roosevelt Elementary School. She also found time to take night classes at Mankato State.
“She was just bound and determined to get her master’s degree,” said her son, John, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “Nothing was going to prevent her from continuing her education.”
Smith mentored teachers half her age, earning the nickname “Mother Superior.” Young women flocked to her for advice about handling mischievous children as well as personal trials outside the classroom.
Smith kept busy after her retirement in 1981. She worked part-time in bookstores, volunteered for the Owatonna Hospital Auxiliary and self-published two books, including the memoir she spent six years writing longhand on legal pads.
At 73, Smith unexpectedly reconnected with a child she’d secretly given up for adoption 46 years before. She received a letter one day with pictures of her son, David Thorman, and his family, asking to meet. Within a week, he was knocking on her door.
“I immediately knew where my smile came from,” said Thorman, of Victoria. “It was really a blessing.” The reunion gave Smith “a new lease on life,” said Stephanie Shea, a friend.
Even in her 90s, Smith never stopped teaching. Unimpressed with the level of conversation at her assisted living home, she formed a weekly discussion group on different subjects and ordered stacks of books from the local library to help guide the discourse, often reading aloud.
The Owatonna Business Women named Smith their first-ever Pioneer Woman of the Year in 2016. In her acceptance speech, she advocated sharing one’s passions with others. “It is your obligation, for the good of your organization and community, to find your inner teacher and share your wisdom with someone who is seeking what you have learned,” she said.
In addition to her sons John and David, Smith is survived by daughter Dolly Johnson of Granite Falls, Minn.; brothers Bob Lieb of Hopkins and Tom Lieb of North St. Paul; 11 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.