LOWER GWYNEDD >> Inside a humble home on Trewellyn Avenue, a living, breathing piece of Lower Gwynedd’s history has plenty of stories to tell.
Thaddeus W. Smith Jr. was recently named the township’s Citizen of the Year for 2015, and his legacy will live on for far longer than the 70 years he’s lived in the township.
“I believe in giving people commendations — I don’t know why they give me so many,” Smith said.
Originally born in Texas, Smith first visited Lower Gwynedd during a visit to an Army friend while both were in uniform during the Second World War, and after a 23-month overseas deployment Smith and wife Irene Lee married in January 1946 — longtime residents may remember Irene’s father, Norris Lee, who at that time was the only African-American police officer in the township.
Many of the couple’s four children, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren still live in the area, and benefited from their parents’ leadership in the civil rights struggle of the early 1950s. Thaddeus and Irene were among four families who fought to desegregate Lower Gwynedd’s elementary schools, holding that federal laws at the time requiring separate but equal accommodations were not available with the nearby Penllyn school, where their children were required to attend, and the more modern Springhouse school roughly two miles away.
“We felt that our kids were not getting an equal education, that they should be going to Springhouse, just like all of the other kids that were in the segregated school,” said Smith.
“Springhouse school had new classrooms, and they were sending old textbooks from Springhouse over to the segregated school, which was here in Penllyn. So we felt — my wife, myself, and four other families — joined together to try to desegregate the schools and bring all of the kids together,” he said.
Before the start of the 1954 school year, according to Smith, renovations at Springhouse school added space for roughly 120 students there, and a corresponding tax increase raised costs for those whose children attended Penllyn. As the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was being debated by the Supreme Court in 1954, Smith travelled across the region enlisting local support for the Lower Gwynedd case, and Smith’s daughter Ledley was one of two African-American students denied entry into third grade at the Springhouse school for the school year starting in fall 1954.
“My mom and dad, and the four families, paid a teacher to come up here on the train, every day, from Philadelphia, to teach my older sister and the three other kids. Right here in this room, for a year, while they kept them out of the school,” said Lynn Johnson, the second-oldest of their four children, gesturing to a study just next to the family living room and kitchen.
While the four parents took the local school district to court, the Supreme Court issued a follow-up ruling to the Brown case in 1955 making local school boards responsible for local integration plans, and the Penllyn parents eventually won a ruling from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas allowing their students to attend Springhouse starting in September 1955.
“We didn’t have everybody in the neighborhood on our team — until we won,” Smith said.
A decade and a half later, when Lynn started her own teaching career, her first year of teaching was at Springhouse, a year she remembers as one of the highlights of her own 35-year career in education.
“It was just amazing. Growing up in the community, going to the school where my parents fought for us to go, and ending up teaching in my old fifth-grade classroom,” she said.
Throughout his 94 years, Smith has also been heavily involved with the community through various volunteer groups, working up through the ranks of Optimist International, a nationwide service group meant to aid youths and seniors — Smith served as national Governor in 1988-89 and remains a life member.
Smith also was, and remains, active in VFW U.S. Post 3398 based in Willow Grove, served on Montgomery County Community College’s board of trustees for seven years, and has been active in local politics for decades, including representing the county as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000who officially declared that convention closed.
“I never got into this whole black and white deal — that’s why, I think, I was successful,” Smith said.
After a 30-year career working for the Department of Defense, Smith retired in 1981 and worked for the Wissahickon School District as an aide in the Special Education Department for another decade, and still gets visits from his former students.
“One girl came to see him, who is now teaching down in Maryland. She was in his class, and she said, ‘Mr. Smith, there’s one thing I always wanted to ask you.’ He always carried a briefcase with him every day, so she said, ‘What did you have in that briefcase?’” Irene said.
That briefcase likely contained just the daily paper and his lunch, Smith said, adding he still enjoys working with children and seniors, and was deeply grateful to the Lower Gwynedd supervisors and staff who chose him for the annual award, and his family for their support.
These days, he stays involved with the Optimists and local politics, keeps up with his three generations of family, and is looking forward to another recognition by the Bethlehem Baptist Church, to be presented at their Springhouse Worship Center at 4 p.m. Jan. 17.
“He still has his irons in the fire. They’re smaller irons now, but they are still lit,” said Lynn.