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Frances Smith, retired journalist, dies at 87

Frances Smith

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Jan. 4, 2010

Frances Smith, a former United Methodist News Service reporter known for her integrity, encyclopedic knowledge of religious and international issues and ability to shoot from the hip, died Dec. 30 in Claremont, Calif., at the age of 87.

Tom McAnally, a news service colleague who eventually became her boss, compared Smith to Helen Thomas, the venerable UPI White House reporter. “She was a scholar and an intellectual who approached her work with all seriousness,” he said. “She didn't hesitate to ask the hard questions when working on a story.”

Smith joined the New York office of United Methodist News Service in 1976. She retired in 1988, after 40 years in journalism. The late George Cornell of The Associated Press said Smith knew the field of religion “better than most academics or bishops.” She was inducted into the denomination’s Communicators’ Hall of Fame that year.

The Texas native and Presbyterian began her career covering the police beat for the St. Louis Star-Times during World War II. After the war, she moved to New York and became assistant editor of Justice, the newspaper of the International Garment Workers’ Union for six years.

She then moved on to religious publications, including denominational magazines for the Presbyterian Church and United Church of Christ and the opinion journal Christianity in Crisis, where she worked with founding editors Reinhold Niebuhr and John Bennett. Moving to Geneva, she served on the World Council of Churches’ communications staff and as editor of Ecumenical News Service from 1966-76.

“Frances was one of the most respected of church journalists for her accuracy and her objectivity,” recalled Betty Thompson, a friend who worked with her in both United Methodist and World Council of Churches settings.

Cornell had called her “a true-blue straightshooter,” alluding to a directness that could be intimidating, McAnally said, to those who did not know her well.

Garlinda Burton, who worked with Smith at UMNS from 1982-88 and described her as a “pistol,” recalled a time when Smith scolded a bishop who had taken a cup of coffee from the General Conference newsroom. That coffee was for the press only, she told him.

Smith needed her coffee, too. “I don’t talk until I have my morning coffee,” she told Barbara Dunlap-Berg, a fellow staff member at United Methodist Communications, when they were assigned to be roommates during the 1984 General Conference. But each day at breakfast, once the coffee had been served, Frances shared some of her reporting experiences with Dunlap-Berg and talked proudly about her nephew, an actor.

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“On the job, Frances was a serious and conscientious reporter; off the job, she was fun with a dry sense of humor,” remembered Nelson Price, who led the public media division at United Methodist Communications.

Thompson and McAnally agreed. “Frances was not noted for her small talk, but she was a very good after-hours party companion,” Thompson added.

For Burton, Smith’s love of travel inspired her “to seize the opportunities in the church to see the world.”

She still remembers a photograph of Smith sitting on a camel in Egypt. “I loved to hear her tell stories about her travel because she’d try anything,” she explained. “I think she just loved being on the world stage.”

The travel bug followed her into retirement, with annual Christmas letters describing her trips. She also worked occasionally as a freelance writer and was actively involved at Pilgrim Place, a Southern California retirement community for those who worked for religious and charitable organizations, where she had resided since 1994.

The Rev. Barbara Troxell, a friend and fellow resident there, said Smith helped inspire the community on environmental issues, served as editor of the monthly newsletter and organized the booths for an annual festival until her health began to decline about a year and a half ago.

Smith is survived by one brother, William Smith, four nieces and a nephew. A memorial service is planned Jan. 23 at Pilgrim Place.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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