Tribune Tribute: Opal Key Smith

By Anthony Gonzalez

November 1, 2013

According to Opal Key Smith, 1911 was a good year, but she doesn’t want to be reminded of it.

A relative of Opal’s keen on his history said Eugene B. Ely landed on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania stationed in San Francisco harbor, marking the first time an aircraft landed on a ship. The United States and Canada announced the successful negotiation of their first reciprocal trade agreement.

Opal was told that Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, was born.

“You expect me to remember that?” said Opal, smiling as she looked over a birthday cake made in her honor.

The celebration was held at Hugh Chatham Nursing Center in Elkin.

“I can’t believe how special she looks and how sharp she is,” said a jubilee Lestine Hutchens, mayor of Elkin, who was on hand for the presentation of a town proclamation declaring Oct. 30 as Opal Key Smith Day.

Opal Key Smith was born in Surry County on Oct. 30, 1911. She spent her younger years assisting her family. Her parents were John Martin and Elisa Hodges Key. Smith cared for eight siblings while working on the family farm.

Opal eventually transitioned from farm work to the medical field. She was a notable face in the operating room at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital until retirement.

“I used to work with her. I was her supervisor and she was my aide,” said Lois Gentry. “We worked from 1958 through 1970 in the old hospital. Times have changed over the years. However, she is just as beautiful and has so much grace. You can trust her with anything. It was a pleasure working with her.”

Opal was married to the late Charles Ray Smith. When Charles passed, Opal continued on very independently, according to family.

“She’s got spunk. She would drive herself everywhere,” said Buddy Key of State Road, her nephew.

Other relatives chimed in saying that Opal has a special touching effect about her, a caring and sensitive approach that always made family come together.

In a proclamation in her honor, the town of Elkin wrote, “During her long and productive lifetime, Opal earned the respect and affection of people from all walks of life and all ages because of her knowledge, experience, wisdom and community spirit, and demonstrated in countless ways her dedication to the welfare of others and her faith in God.”

“There are not enough words that can catch up to how much Opal means to Elkin,” said Hutchens. “She’s just a piece of history…she nursed until she was 70 years old.”

During the celebration, Opal received a surprise visit by Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital CEO Paul Hammes.

The hospital top official thanked Opal for all of her service to the hospital. Squatting beside Opal and sharing a conversation, Hammes erupted into laughter.

“She just told me that I can have some cake, but not her,” said Hammes.

Spectators witnessing the moment laughed at what Hammes revealed, but the family was not surprised.

“That’s my aunt for you,” said Key.

Reach Anthony Gonzalez at 835-1513 or at agonzalez@civitasmedia.com.