Glenna Johnson Smith brought down the house with her reading of "The Telephone Man" at Echoes' 25th anniversary celebration in 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Michael Gudreau

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Kathryn Olmstead of Caribou is a former columnist for the Bangor Daily News.

Aroostook County lost one of its treasures last week when Glenna Johnson Smith died at age 100.

The lives of countless people are richer because they knew her as a teacher, writer, editor and friend.

Glenna’s belief in the value of every human being was fierce. Her students remember her giving them confidence to be who they were, rather than who they thought others expected them to be.

“She’d congratulate us on what we had done right, rather than inking us to death on what we had done wrong,” wrote former student Jeff Nevers in a 1998 tribute. “Along with her desire to bring out our true selves through writing, she tapped the little bud of confidence we each had within ourselves and transformed it into a bouquet.”

Glenna gave the same kind of encouragement to writers of all ages as an editor at Aroostook County-based Echoes magazine. Ever-sensitive to the fragility of self-esteem and the risk inherent in self-expression, she offered suggestions on submissions from writers as personal views that need not be adopted if they compromised the writer’s authenticity. She never found fault without balancing it with praise.

Her tolerance ended, however, with pretense and put-downs. Her fine-tuned radar detected the smallest hint of superiority or derision, and exposed demeaning language for its potential to harm some readers. Faced with writing that seemed self-serving or pompous, she would say, “It was important for this person to write this, but it is not important for me to read it.”

When I invited her to write a column for Echoes in 1990, Glenna set out to celebrate growing old.

“I like the sound of the words ‘old woman,’” she said in that conversation. “They’re strong words – earthy, honest. I’m grateful I’ve survived long enough to label myself by them.”

And so, she named her column “Old County Woman,” incorporating her affection for her adopted home in Aroostook County. For 25 years she chronicled her experience of aging with humor, tenderness and insight that made the word “old” positive instead of pejorative.

Glenna was annoyed by the use of “old woman” as an insult and fed up with condescending stereotypes and silly euphemisms for “old.” She tired of seeing television portrayals of stupid old women who needed a young person to set them straight. She wondered at well-meaning people who greeted her as a “young lady” or introduced her as “90 years young,” as if “in their mistaken way” they thought she wished she were young.

“And why shouldn’t they,” she said in a 2011 interview. “Look at the billions of dollars being spent on things to make you look young.” Glenna offered a clear alternative to the obsession with youth that has women (and men) attempting to disguise their age with everything from hair color to surgery.

“Growing old is not a disease or a disgrace, it’s a stage of life,” she told me soon after she turned 90. “I haven’t seen a decade yet that did not have something good to offer.”

Her choices kept her young.” I get the basics every week,” she said. “I take walks, don’t smoke and get plenty of sleep.” She said her daily morning exercises to rhythmic jazz “give me energy and make me want to do more.” She became a vegetarian “as a protest against how animals were grown and treated” and found she felt better without the heavy meat that had been a staple of her diet when raising a family on an Aroostook County farm.

“I don’t ever stuff down a huge meal,” she said, opting instead for small meals more often and “senior” portions at restaurants.

“With the structure of my working years gone, I have enjoyed the freedom to make decisions,” she said. Instead of fighting and fearing old age, she used the experience of aging as fodder for creative activity. She not only gave voice to elders, but also provided a role model for anyone who hopes to grow old. Imagine the effect on our culture if others followed her example.

“Listen to the words ‘old woman’ (or ‘old man’),” she wrote in a 1991 column “Defense of Old Woman.” “They don’t sound so bad, do they? With a little luck and by the grace of God you’ll be one of us some day.”

Kathryn Olmstead of Caribou is a former columnist for the Bangor Daily News and former editor of Echoes magazine who was a member of the journalism faculty at the University of Maine for 25 years.