Had Jewell Kees Smith been born in a different time or place, how different would her life have been?
Consider: Smith, who was born in a small Louisiana town about halfway between Shreveport and New Orleans, was an exceptional student, winning a college award for drama when she was still in high school. At age 15, she was valedictorian of her high school, the largest in Louisiana.
The rigorous University of Chicago offered her a full scholarship, but her father insisted that she attend Louisiana College, a private Christian school in her home town of Pineville. Her father died during her sophomore year, and Smith was forced to drop out to support her mother and two younger siblings.
She worked full time as a pastor's secretary and taught piano lessons at night. After a year, she managed to get back to college and completed two terms while holding a part-time job. She graduated at age 19 with a major in math and the second-highest grade-point average in the school.
Three Baptist seminaries offered her scholarships but she stayed in Pineville to support the family through the Great Depression. She kept the books for a grocery store, taught math classes at her alma mater, was secretary to a college dean and was a pastor's assistant and piano teacher at night.
About the same time, halfway around the world, English social critic Virginia Woolf asked whether a brilliant, ambitious woman equal in all ways to an equally talented brother could succeed.
Would her family have sent her to school? Would someone offer her a bit of income to get her started? Would the public be interested in what this woman had to offer?
Of those who persevered, Woolf asked, what limitations had been placed on their talents? Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," which asked these questions, was published in 1929, just as Jewell Kees was working all those jobs and letting educational opportunities pass by.
Unlike the woman in Woolf's book, however, the young woman in Louisiana did not surrender to despair. Never one for "could have, would have, should have" sentiments, Smith's prodigious work ethic saw her through 94 years of life, until her death June 26 of coronary artery disease at Goodwin House West in Falls Church.
"I never heard a sour note from her," said her pastor, the Rev. Ted Fuson. "I don't think she ever thought of [herself] as being second banana. . . . I always thought she was an emotionally healthy woman, a strong woman."
She married A. Lincoln Smith, a childhood friend and seminary graduate, in 1935.
The cheerful, outgoing Mrs. Smith was the consummate accompanist, her two sons said, aiding her husband's ministry and the Washington area religious community for 65 years.
She was the organist, Sunday school teacher and secretary at four churches: National Baptist Memorial Church and Congress Heights Baptist Church in the District, Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria and Lake Ridge Baptist Church in Woodbridge. She and her husband also established 10 churches in Southern Maryland.
"She and my father fell into a joint partnership that was widely recognized," said Dave Smith, their eldest son. "They worked very, very closely together. We joked that our father would call everyone by name because she whispered their names in his ear."
The couple moved to Washington in the late 1930s. While her husband handled pastor's duties, Mrs. Smith briefly worked for Rep. Asa Leonard Allen (D-La.) until her first child was born.
Then came a series of church assignments, and a whirlwind of activity. She liked to point out that her Sunday school class at National Baptist Memorial included more than 150 career women and that average attendance topped 100. She rescued pieces of a pipe organ in a derelict building on the Southwest waterfront that had once been a church, and the rebuilt instrument was the pride of Groveton Baptist.
In addition to her church work, she was a substitute teacher for math and music at Groveton and Woodbridge high schools, working well into her eighties. She was a private tutor in math and taught piano and organ, too. After she moved into a retirement home, she played the organ in its chapel, sang in a choir and would act as a substitute at several churches.
"There was nobody in the world who was better named than Jewell," said Gaylie Grindheim Lund, who had known Smith for the past 14 years. "I just adored that woman. She was always willing to give of herself, she was always kind. She had a lovely, lovely, gracious personality."
Smith was such a popular math substitute that, more than once, students applauded her arrival in the classroom, said Lund, who worked at Woodbridge. "She was so good in math. I never heard her raise her voice in anger. It was just: 'You can do better. C'mon.' Kids loved her."
She might have not regretted the lost opportunities because by all accounts, she looked forward, sought chances to help others and loved her family.
But for the rest of us, Virginia Woolf's question must be asked: What is the world's loss? What if in 1929, the young Jewell Kees Smith had had a bit of income, a scholarship and a room of her own?