Living Legends: 'She serves her family first and foremost'


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CHAMPAIGN — The second annual Smith Family Reunion was held in Flint, Mich., in 1989.

A photo from the time shows a sprawling group of 150 family members — kids down front sitting on the grass; mothers, aunts and cousins in the middle; and the tallest in the back — all part of a dynasty that persists today, with 80-year-old Mable Smith Graham, the third-oldest of 11 children, as the current matriarch.

At least that's how Carol Smith-Hassell puts it. She nominated her great-aunt, Graham, to be one of five local women honored as Living Legends on Saturday by the Champaign County Section of the National Council of Negro Women.

Smith-Hassell said Graham's life as a working parent of three girls, and as a member of such a large family, helped her become the beloved elder she is today.

"She serves her family first and foremost," Smith-Hassell said of her great-aunt. "She's there for all of us. She's very active in her church. She's active in the community. She just truly demonstrates the epitome of a legend."

Graham had to learn to be good at being around people. As one of the oldest of so many children, she was always expected to help care for her siblings.

That taught her the sense of responsibility and respect that she's instilled in her own children.

"There wasn't a whole lot of bickering because it was not allowed," Graham said. "I really liked that. And I still go along with that."

Once out of school, Graham chose to dive head-first into full-time work, first canning corn, lima beans and peas in Gibson City, and finally at Kraft in Champaign.

"I believe in having my money," Graham said. "A person needs to learn at an early age what it means to be responsible for your own outcomes. I always liked all my jobs, too, and I never had a problem with just doing what I needed to get done.

"A lot of people gravitated toward me to talk to me for encouragement. I was always (taught) to say, 'Let's do this and do that and get it all done.' Having fun while you're working is something that came natural to me."

People may sometimes have trouble identifying who they are in the world, but Graham has always known what she's about: community, faith and family.

"She got a lot of that from our grandparents," said Graham's daughter, Hazel Nevils. "She wasn't strict but always made sure we were on the right path. With my granddad being a minister and all, things were about taking the right road, so we just follow that even today."

Graham's advice for parents in today's age? "Be a parent first. After that, you can be friend or whatever to your children.

"I don't care how old they get, you're always going to be the parent. So try to teach the kids the right thing to do. And be an example for them. The way you build that is through mutual respect for one another."