Life After Samantha Smith | Yankee Classic

Wherever she appears, Jane Smith of Manchester, Maine, knows with absolute certainty how she will be introduced to her audience: Jane Smith, mother of schoolgirl Samantha Smith.

By Mel Allen

Feb 09 2018

Samantha Smith                     1983

Samantha Smith, 11- year- old Maine schoolgirl invited to Moscow by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, sat in the back of Chaika limousine with her mother, Jane, on July 8, 1983, in Moscow. They are on their way to a Moscow hotel.

Photo Credit : (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

On a Friday morning in a television studio on the outskirts of Portland, Maine, Jane Smith sits in a chair on the stage set of “At Issue,” a local public affairs show that airs Sundays at 11:30 A.M., and with practiced ease snaps a microphone onto her sweater beside her necklace. “No, I’m not nervous anymore,” she says. “More worried, maybe, that I haven’t prepared enough. But I could never be relaxed like Samantha.”

Samantha Smith
Samantha Smith, 11-year-old Maine schoolgirl invited to Moscow by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, sat in the back of a Chaika limousine with her mother, Jane, on July 8, 1983, in Moscow. They are on their way to a Moscow hotel.
Photo Credit : (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

She is attractive, early forties, jogger lean. She knows how to dress for the television camera: light turtleneck, turquoise sweater, black skirt, silver necklace. Her eyes are brown, and her hair, once brown and short, curls long and light. “Friends say I look like they remember me 15 years ago,” she says. “Would Samantha like it? Yes,” she says, smiling, “she would. She would like it a lot.” She does not smile easily before the camera. She knows this and reminds herself that television is kinder to a smile. Her face, she also knows, has a tendency to droop. “People look at me and see a grief-stricken mother and widow,” she says. “But I’ve always looked sad. Even as a little girl people said, ‘Jane, you look so sad.’ ” She put her fingers on her cheekbones. “When I relax, everything just sags.” She knows she will be introduced the way she is always introduced — with a pause. She knows this just as she knows the comma will be there in all the newspaper stories. “Jane Smith. Pause. Samantha’s mother.” She knows someday her obituary will begin, “Jane Smith, mother of schoolgirl Samantha Smith …”

“I was thinking about that,” she says. “I was filling out an application for a grant, and I had to list my honors and awards. I realized that the last award for me was in college. Everything I have received since has been for Samantha.”

In 1983 she was mother to the most famous child in the world, Samantha Smith, the little girl from Maine who sent a letter to Yuri Andropov — “My name is Samantha Smith . . . I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war … ” and whose subsequent journey to the Soviet Union became a media sensation. Throughout that time Jane Smith stayed in the background. She knew the journey did not belong to her but to Samantha. In the months of fame that followed, when Samantha grew from celebrity to a worldwide symbol for peace, she was there, attached but barely visible, like the string that holds a buoyant kite.

On a rainy August night in 1985, Jane Smith was waiting at the Augusta airport for Bar Harbor flight 1808 out of Boston when word came that it had crashed 4,000 feet short of the Lewiston runway and burst into flames. Eight people were on board, including Jane Smith’s husband Arthur, age 45, and Samantha, then 13. Samantha and her father were coming home from Samantha’s film-making session in England for her new television series, Lime Street. “Samantha had asked me to come with her this time,” Jane says. “She thought her father had been traveling with her so much. But I was the breadwinner then, and I had to stay on my job.” With a friend she drove to the scene of the crash. “When I saw it, I knew nobody had survived.” It was then she began the long process of putting what she calls “objective distance” between her life and theirs. “I knew I would survive the loss,” she says. “I just didn’t know how.”

Dave Silverbrand, host of “At Issue,” talks with Jane Smith for nearly 30 minutes. They retrace Samantha’s journey and the journey of Jane Smith out of grief to her current work, bringing a message that “one ordinary person can make a difference,” continuing what Samantha represented through the Samantha Smith Center. They talk about Jane’s projects: an international newsletter for children, bringing American situation comedies to the Soviet Union, hosting Soviet children in American summer camps. At the show’s end, the address and phone number of the center flashes twice on the screen so that viewers can send for information or, perhaps, send donations. The address appears in bold white letters set off against a black background with a wide red stripe highlighting the words “Samantha Smith Center.” After the show, Jane Smith shakes hands with the show’s director, the man who highlighted the address. “That was beautiful,” she says. “Thank you for doing that.”

In the days that follow there will be only one response, a woman calling for information. “You know what well-meaning people tell me?” Jane Smith asks. “They say that if I want money for the center I had better learn to cry in public.”

She lives today in a pretty two-story house set off by woods in the small town of Manchester, just west of Augusta. “People feel surprised I’m still living in the same house. I’ve thought about leaving it, getting a fresh start, but I like its familiarity. I’ve put down new carpet, rearranged and redecorated things. I’ve tried to make it seem like a different house.” The clothes of her only child, Samantha, lie in boxes out of sight in a storage room. Except for the new carpet, Samantha’s room is bare. Gone are the silver samovar, the folk art, the toe shoes autographed by the prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, the stuffed animals, the dolls — mementos of what Jane Smith calls “Samantha’s adventure.” Now they reside in a long glass case at the statehouse alongside displays of Maine’s other famed resources: deer, moose, brook trout, Atlantic salmon.

“I didn’t want to be the kind of mother who lived in a museum,” Jane Smith says. “A scriptwriter asked me to leave the room as it was until he could see it, and I did. After that I took pictures of it, so I could remember how it looked.” What she kept was a fancy paper bag that Samantha was bringing home from England and that somehow survived the crash. “In the bag were colored pads of paper with slogans on them and a small glitzy bumper sticker,” she says. “One of the pads says, ‘So much to do, so little time.’ The other pad of paper says, ‘A peacock who sits on its tail feathers is just another turkey.’ The bumper sticker reads, ‘Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.’ ”

Every morning she is at her fitness center by 5:30, jogging and lifting weights. The morning after the crash, Jane Smith kept her workout. “I am a practical person,” she says. “I knew that when people woke up, they would hear it on the news. I wanted to be able to deal with everything.” A few weeks later she boarded a Bar Harbor plane in Augusta — the same sort of plane, a Beechcraft 99, that crashed in Lewiston. “I thought, ‘If I don’t do this soon, I’ll be afraid to fly.’ I sat right behind the pilot, and I could see a big gaping hole in the dashboard. I thought maybe I should stand up and tell everybody who I was and suggest we all get off. But I didn’t. It was one of the worst flights I’ve ever had. But we made it. I made it.”

It takes her 12 minutes to drive to her office, down Route 17 to Daggett’s Market to 202 then over the Granite Hill Road into Hallowell. The news on the radio this day is of Mikhail Gorbachev’s impending arrival in America for a summit with President Reagan. She parks across from Boynton’s Market. Her office is in a tall frame building that was once a stable; more recently it housed an ambulance service and meetings of the Grange. “Our initial funders, who raised $100,000 to get us started, wanted me to move to New York. I refused to do that. When we refused to become the large organization that they wanted us to be, we lost some of that support.”

There is no sign on the building, nor on the door, but opening the door she sees a poster of a smiling Samantha beneath these words: “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” The “Not” is crossed out. “So many people comment to me how difficult it must be for me to see this poster every day,” she says, “or to watch tapes of Samantha’s trips. But that little girl was already gone. Parents will tell you a 13-year-old is almost a completely different child.”

She climbs the stairs to the second floor. Nailed to the door is a small plaque: “The Samantha Smith Center gratefully appreciates the donation of this office space.” It does not say that the donor is Jane Smith. Inside, hanging from a wall, is Samantha’s invitation, in Russian, from Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov. Nearby is Samantha on the cover of Life, Samantha on the cover of Soviet Life, a framed Soviet stamp honoring Samantha after her death. On a shelf is Samantha’s book, Journey to the Soviet Union, written with her father shortly before she died. The office is quiet. There is a secretary. Two women volunteers stuff envelopes with information about the center, requesting contributions. The stationery reads: “A nonprofit corporation dedicated to fostering international understanding.” A smiling Samantha, age 11, decorates the border.

She goes into her office, spacious with sofa and easy chair and a map of the world along a wall, to phone the Soviet Embassy in Washington. “I want to send Gorbachev a copy of Samantha’s book as a memento of welcome. But they’ll be swamped with stuff. I want to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

The summer after Samantha died, Jane Smith returned to the Soviet Union. By then she had left her position as an administrator with the Maine Department of Social Services. With her were 20 of Samantha’s classmates from Maine. Where Samantha had gone, they went. By then an asteroid, a flower, a mountain, and a cruise ship bore Samantha’s name in the Soviet Union. At Artek, the camp where Samantha had spent the happiest days of her trip, Jane Smith walked along Samantha Smith Alley, entered through a gate where a portrait of Samantha greeted visitors. A package from Jane Smith will reach Mikhail Gorbachev.

In Maine, the first Monday in June is officially Samantha Smith Day, when schools across the state will plan activities to help children understand other cultures and to remember Samantha. But on this day the future of the center that bears her name is in doubt. Jane Smith has just laid off her paid fund-raiser. A successful and publicized summer exchange that gave ten Soviet teens nearly a week at a Maine camp — the first time the Soviets had sent their kids to an American camp — depleted the center’s funds. A projected donation of $50,000 from the sale of “Joanie’s Jams,” featuring the blueberry jam recipe of Olympian Joan Benoit Samuelson, collapsed when a sliver of glass was found in a jar of the jam sold in a grocery store. Samagram, the center’s magazine for young people, had published five issues, but had attracted only 700 subscribers. Jane Smith had hoped for 5,000. The Samantha Smith Story, a movie that Columbia Pictures hoped to co-produce with the Soviets, was into its fourth script, and its prospects grew bleaker by the day. The center was to have received a portion of the film’s profits. With a friend she has started writing a biography of Samantha. If it sells, the proceeds will go to the center.

She talks about growing up in the early fifties as the daughter of a minister in Virginia. “My father was a hunter, and he gave me a BB gun. I remember thinking that if the Russians came, I would get my gun and hold them off at the house.” And of her days at Hollins College where as a senior she met a young English teacher, Arthur Smith. In 1970 the couple moved to a tiny Aroostook County town with a prophetic name, Amity, “friendship among peoples.” They lived in an old farmhouse a half mile from neighbors. Jane was town clerk, worked in the woods as a surveyor, and in time had a craft shop, while Arthur taught at Ricker College in Houlton. When Ricker folded, the family came south to Manchester where Jane found work with the Department of Human Services and Arthur became a part time professor in Augusta. He also suffered his second heart attack.

“That was rough on Samantha when we first moved,” she says. “She’d come home and say ‘Nobody likes me.’ You know how it is when you’re eight. Her father was in the hospital when the fair came to town. Arthur stayed home with Samantha, but she was really babysitting him. He had just recovered when she wrote her letter, and one thing I worried about was if he could hold up. My friends were concerned that after the crash, Art got lost in the shuffle. He was a movie buff, so they set up a fund to buy videos in his name at the Houlton library.”

The conversation turns towards Samantha, as it always will. Jane Smith has told some of the stories so often that they hold for her the comfort bedtime tales give children.

“She surprised all of us. How she suddenly became articulate in front of the camera. To us she was a ten-year-old who seemed to do nothing but giggle and act like a complete idiot with her friends. Then all of a sudden the camera was turned on, and she could make sense. The first time I saw her on television I had to go to my neighbor’s to watch. We didn’t have an antenna. She came on, and tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t believe this was my kid.

“When the media crush began, we tried to anticipate questions. We tried to be careful in not telling her what to say, but we wanted her to have time to think about what she might be asked. But she didn’t like to do that. She’d say, ‘That’s OK, Mom. I can handle it.’ She was the perfect age for all this. She had no idea of the impact of the trip. It was like she was taking an exciting field trip. A couple more years down the road and she would have been too self-conscious.

“But look,” she says, holding the morning’s Bangor Daily News, “here’s a review of a Samantha Smith biography. The writer called me once, talked a little bit, and wrote it. The center won’t receive any money, and it might hurt our own book. A lot of people have capitalized on Samantha. And there’s not much we can do about it.”

She wants to make a video to train other groups who wish to promote youth exchanges. “We have the footage,” she says, “but we can’t afford to edit it. Part of the problem is that I ignored fund-raising for a long time. I thought this was such a wonderful idea that the money would just come in. In the beginning people told me, ‘You have to capitalize on this right away.’ They’d say, ‘I hope you understand, but the appeal of Samantha is only going to last for so long.’ I was brought up where you don’t go around asking people to give you money. Asking people for money for the foundation seems almost like asking for myself. And I think one of the problems with our fund-raising — and it’s hard for me to tell, because people won’t say it to me directly — is that some people think the center is just therapy for me. Just a little project until I get over the hump.

“When I began the center, I was on a lot of TV shows. I wanted to talk about our work, about bringing Soviet kids here, sending our kids over there. But they wanted me to talk on how to deal with grief. So many letters came from people asking me to tell them how I managed to get through. It still happens. An older man carried my groceries out to the car. He said, ‘You’re Mrs. Smith, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he started crying. I thought, ‘Now what should I do?’ It’s very sweet yet at the same time a little awkward.” She says, “I still cry, especially alone, at night. But it’s not something you can do anything about, except go on. There’s so much to do right here.” She speaks softly, with no hint of self-pity. Rather, she seems to want to cover the subject, knowing the questions are always asked.

Her assistant knocks, hands her a message. “You know,” Jane Smith says returning to the conversation, “at least half of our calls are from people wanting us to help them start an exchange. Which in a way is wonderful. But we’re all competing for the same funding. Maybe Samantha’s influence has done as much as it can. Maybe I should just be happy for the stimulus she’s given to others. But with her name we can do so much. She is a folk hero in the Soviet Union. That is a legacy I would hate to give up.”

“When we came home from the Soviet Union, we thought the attention would subside. But it didn’t. We kept asking ourselves if everything would be a bore to her after this. But she seemed to be handling the attention so well. She had some problems in school. She fell behind in her homework, and some kids teased her about being a communist. Some teachers bent over backwards so much not to treat her differently that, I think, they ended up giving her a rough time. When she went to California to be on the Johnny Carson show, she had a tutor out there who showed her how to do some assignment. When she got back, her teacher said she had done it wrong and ripped the paper up in front of the class. The other kids told me this, that Samantha was in tears. Samantha didn’t. If she hadn’t had so many good things happen to her, it could have destroyed her.

“When she was invited to be on Lime Street, that was a very big decision. It seemed too good an opportunity for her to pass up. She had such an affinity for the camera. But we felt uneasy taking a 13- year-old girl to Los Angeles. Friends called it ‘Sin City.’ It was all a little scary. She loved the Hollywood stuff. She was the right age to be fascinated with the glitz and the make-up — which worried me. We had put a deposit on an apartment near Columbia Studios, but we weren’t sure how we would support ourselves. By then she had gotten very interested in clothes from her trips to California. She’d hang out with Robert Wagner’s daughter, who had a wardrobe like Samantha had never seen. When she first became famous, she’d never had a dress on. When she met the governor, she didn’t even have a pair of dress shoes. I thought she couldn’t go in sneakers to meet the governor, so I bought her her first pair of dress-ups. When she returned from California, Augusta didn’t have what she wanted. So we had to go to Portland. Some people wrote that they felt betrayed that Samantha had gone Hollywood. But it wouldn’t have been natural for Samantha to devote her life to Soviet-American relations at age 11.”

It is lunchtime and Jane has a walking date to climb the steep hills of Hallowell. There is one more question on this day, about “objective distance” and a piece of stone. The stone is outside the statehouse, in a grove of birch trees, a life-sized bronze statue of Samantha set against a wall of pink granite. A bear cub, symbolic of both the Soviet Union and Maine, rests at her feet. A white dove is poised to fly from her hand. She wears blue jeans and Nike sneakers, and at Jane Smith’s insistence to the sculptor, an imitation Izod T-shirt, the kind she always bought at Sears. For a moment the distance closes. “In summer, with leaves on the trees, I can hardly see it,” Jane says. “And it sounds strange to say it, but in winter I’ll go by, and I’ll feel she has to have more clothes on. She can’t be out there with shirtsleeves.”

Excerpt from “’Life After Samantha,” Yankee Magazine, May 1988.

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