Maine students hear the name Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) during their United States history classes. They learn that the Maine senator was the only woman in a chamber of 99 men, and they’re told the story of her courageous speech against Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Cold War. But there’s much to learn from the actions of this Maine icon.
A new documentary, “The Life of Margaret Chase Smith” produced by Bar Harbor’s Dobbs Productions and hosted by Jack Perkins, will air at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 10, on Maine Public Broadcasting.
“We’re just praying to God that people watch it before her name is forgotten because I don’t think the next generation realizes how important she was,” said Jeff Dobbs, founder of Dobbs Productions.
“The Life of Margaret Chase Smith” is the second film in their Maine Biography series, which began with a film on Leon Leonwood Bean, founder of L.L.Bean. The 90-minute film consists of 700 photos, in addition to video interviews of former Gov. Angus King, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, historians, and Smith’s colleagues and relatives.
Born in Skowhegan in 1897, Smith was the first woman to be elected “in her own right” to the U.S. Senate, where she served for 24 years. (The two women who served before her were appointed to the office.) She was also the first woman to be nominated for U.S. presidency by a major political party.
But Smith started out as a star of a different kind. A talented basketball player at Skowhegan High School, she intended to attend college to become a physical education teacher — but college was expensive. She worked as an operator at the Maine Telephone Company and held a job at the local newspaper “The Independent Reporter.” But what really boosted her into her political career was her leadership in civic and women’s clubs.
“In a nutshell, she was a pretty amazing woman and there will never be another one like her,” he said. “From all the video I’ve seen of her … she was that same kind of New England-spirited, hardscrabble kind of person — as honest as the day is long and sweet as could be.”
In her 20s, Smith became a part of the Republican committee of women in Skowhegan, and her marriage to Maine Rep. Clyde Smith brought her to Washington, where she acted as his secretary and organized his campaigns. Clyde asked Smith to run for the House before he died in 1940. Backed by his supporters, she won the seat.
She was elected to the Senate just eight years later and retained the seat until 1972.
The public television documentary is based on the biography “No Place for a Woman: A Life of Margaret Chase Smith” by Dr. Janann Sherman, who spent six years studying Smith’s political life in the Margaret Chase Smith Library (dedicated in 1982) and forming a relationship with Smith in Skowhegan.
“Sometimes, I really get to miss her because when you write a biography, you get to carry around someone inside your head,” Sherman said during a phone interview Wednesday from her office at the University of Memphis.
Sherman’s most treasured memories of her are the times Smith would come to her apartment to eat barbecue ribs at the picnic table on her back lawn.
“She had a level of integrity,” Sherman said. “She never accepted campaign contributions. She was very much about taking every issue on and not applying a preconceived ideology and thinking about how it would affect people and what was the right thing to do. … That’s why we need to watch this video. I think she has something to say to us.”
Dobbs Productions, founded in 1981 by Jeff Dobbs, is a two-person crew, Dobbs and Bing Miller, though Catherine Russell wrote the documentary script and Jack Perkins narrates nearly every film they produce.
“The Life of Margaret Chase Smith,” thought to be a 1.5-year project, took them five years to complete because of difficulty getting funding in a poor economy, and editing 12 hours of film down to 90 minutes.
PBS has aired previous Dobbs Productions documentaries including “Gift of Acadia,” “Maine America’s Coast,” “High on Maine,” “Light Spirit: Lighthouses of the Maine Coast,” and “Wild Maine.”
Of the 40 Maine icons on their list for the Maine Biographies series, Smith rose to the top.
The documentary explains the cost Smith paid for her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech delivered to the Senate in 1950. Her eloquent, honest words opposed accusations made by Sen. Joseph McCarthy that communists had infiltrated the U.S. government. McCarthy never found one communist, but he stirred up a hindering fear in the U.S. democratic system for years.
Smith stayed connected to her home state by responding to every letter from her constituents the day she received it, and she traveled Maine for at least a month every year. In Congress, she missed only one vote due to hip surgery. She traveled the world to meet the heads of state of 23 nations and supported the space program, national defense, women’s full rights in the military and health care, among other things, during her eight successive terms.
“Margaret Chase Smith understood that government can have a positive influence in people’s lives,” said Margaret Chase Smith Library Director Greg Gallant. “She understood and demonstrated better than anyone that it’s important to maintain a relationship between government and governed.”
The Margaret Chase Smith Library, from which 95 percent of the images for the documentary were acquired, will own the documentary and make it available to library visitors.
“[The documentary] is a timely thing because one of the things we confront every day at the library is keeping her legacy and name alive, and projects like this make that easier for us to accomplish,” said Gallant.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the woman who wrote the documentary script. It is Catherine Russell, not Katherine Russell.