By Joanna Bastian
May Ellen Libby Smith was born on a late summer day, Aug. 15, 1918. Her mother, Marian Libby, was harvesting corn from the garden when her water broke within view of Leecher Mountain from Twisp River. May’s father, Chester Libby, grabbed his horse and rode to summon Cora Scott, the midwife. May was born at home later that day — although, you could say May’s first introduction to life was the rich Methow soil of her mother’s garden. Her given name at birth was “Mae,” but she has always signed her name as “May,” the gardener’s favorite time of year, when Emerson’s words come to life: “What potent blood hath modest May.”
May’s paternal grandparents, Ashbell and Sarah Libby, built the first schoolhouse on Libby Creek. They continued on as school administrators for many years. A deep appreciation for education was firmly planted in May. From her parents’ home on Twisp River, May rode the bus to school in Twisp, and attended the large school that is today’s Methow Valley Community Center.
May fondly recalled the teacher who introduced her to poetry, Ms. Virginia Ramm. “I loved poetry. I’d lean my head into old Daisy while milking and I’d write poetry!” she exclaimed. “Give me a word, any word, and I’ll write a poem around that word.”
With a twinkle in her blue eyes, May raised her hands and gestured as she recited “The Day is Done” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The day is done, and the darkness Falls from the wings of Night, As a feather … .” Her hands swept the air in a gentle downward waft, “From an eagle in his flight…” she continued to the very end.
“I’d get up early, while it was still dark and go sit at the ponds with my dog, waiting for the sun the rise,” she recalled. “The moment dawn hit the water, it seemed like the whole world came alive, all the frogs and birds, it was so loud!”
After the eighth grade, the family needed May to go to work. She was heartbroken to leave school, but she enjoyed her time working at various places, starting at a restaurant in Tonasket, and including the original Logan’s in Twisp.
During WWII, May got a job at the Vancouver shipyards. She was outfitted with a Harley Davidson motorcycle, sidecar, and a team of women to manage the tool warehouse and deliver tools to ships. “That is where I met Eleanor Roosevelt,” she said.
The First Lady had arrived in Vancouver to christen a ship. May let the other women off early so they could get a good seat in the crowd. The crowds grew that morning while she continued her deliveries via motorcycle. She was summoned by a commanding officer, who indicated that someone needed a ride. May drove up to the curb and nodded to man to get into her sidecar. “He was a real fancy dude with a top hat,” she recollected. May drove him up to the gates, where Eleanor was waiting. The man got out and stepped up to the First Lady, turning to wave to May. “Eleanor Roosevelt blew me a kiss.” May pressed her fingers to her pursed lips, and tipped them forward, “just like that. She had a nice smile. She was not as homely as the pictures made her out to be.” After the ceremony, Eleanor Roosevelt’s motorcade drove by May, as she waited on her motorcycle. Eleanor singled out May, as she blew another kiss.
May soon traveled to Spokane, where she was hired by the Air National Guard. “Let me tell you about my good time job,” she grinned. “All the other applicants had finished school. I didn’t think I had a chance. But they picked me, I had the smarter answers!” She smiled, the memory still potent decades later.
May knew that things were done one particular way in the military. But she found her job to be inefficient, especially during an emergency when she had to quickly compile a report from multiple file sources. May changed the filing system to better respond to emergencies. One day, the commanding officers strode into the room. May thought, “Uh oh, here comes the brass, there goes my job.” But instead, they shook her hand and congratulated May on her quick response time. Her filing system was implemented nationwide. Later in life, the Air National Guard recognized May with a Letter of Commendation.
Throughout her adult life, May continued to write poetry, and yearned to finish her schooling. In her late thirties, she achieved that goal and received her college degree in interior design.
At 99 years old, May is still very much young at heart, the embodiment of Emerson’s words, “What potent blood hath modest May.” When complimented on her youthful complexion and air of health, she holds up a jar of Gardners Gardens beeswax skin cream, made in the Methow Valley by David and Marilyn Sabold. (It’s been my longtime favorite, too!) May also credits a spoonful of honey every morning, sometimes mixed with peanut butter. From her home in Wenatchee, May has a request of her friends: “Bring me some Methow dirt. The good kind, some Methow soil!”
“Ode to Alder Creek Red Tailed Hawk”
By May Libby Smith
Oh, hawk, I have heard you
in the spring sky,
and looking up, I see you
soaring high above
fields and streams nearby.
I still hear you today –
that plaintive, haunting sound
as you are carried joyfully,
buoyant on warm March winds.
It did so fill my soul with joy –
joy not of this world
but of yours, where
I too was lifted high
on March winds
in spirit, and I was
one with you.