Macalester Today Spring 2011

something to believe in

noah smithTHE REV. NOAH SMITH WAS 49 when he found his calling. At 74, he enrolled at Macalester. And today, at age 103, Noah Smith spends many of his Sundays standing at the pulpit at the Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, giving sermons in a clear, strong voice. Some might call him a late bloomer. Almost every­one calls him an inspiration.

Wearing a crisp shirt and tie in the immaculate North Minne­apolis home he shares with his wife of 30 years, Hallie, Smith recalls his early years as a drummer. It was the dream of making music that led him to leave his Marion, Indiana, home and travel throughout the Midwest in the 1920s. “There was a group of musicians that needed a drummer, and I saw my chance to leave town,” he says. “It was the jazz age, I liked music, and I decided to go with them.”

He toured with the group through Detroit and Flint, Michigan, eventually landing in Minneapolis, a place he loved so much he made it home. His music career eventually slowed, and he took jobs as a sign painter and dining car waiter on the Great Northern Railway, among other things. But the thread that ran throughout his life, no matter where he worked or lived, was God.
Smith grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and in the 1940s joined an AME Church in Minneapolis. By the early ’50s he’d become an active member of St. Peter’s AME Church in Minne­apolis, playing in the church band, reading scripture, and teaching Sunday School. When the minister pulled him aside a few years later to tell him he should become a minister, Smith was flabbergasted. “I said, ‘Why should I do that? God should have called me earlier,’” he recalls. “The minister said, “He did, but you wouldn’t listen.”

After four years of study, Smith became an assistant minister at St. Peter’s. Over the next two decades, he moved among ministries in St. Paul, Duluth, and Minneapolis, but in 1982, searching for more, he landed at Macalester. He contacted religion professor Calvin Roet­zel, who directed the college’s Adult Scholar program. Roetzel recalls being immediately impressed. “He was someone with remarkable life experiences, intellectual gifts, and tremendous aspirations,” Roetzel recalls. He immediately admitted Smith into the program.

Roetzel knew that Smith—then 74, older than Macalester alumni celebrating their 50th reunions—would add a valuable perspective to a classroom filled with young people. Smith, for his part, said he gained just as much from the experience as any other student. “In Macalester’s religion courses, we listened to speakers from various faiths,” he says. “Calvin Roetzel told me, ‘Do not argue or debate them, no matter how outrageous their arguments. Listen to them. Find out what they’re all about.’ ”

Smith found himself serving as a sounding board for students eager to absorb knowledge from his experiences, and by the time he graduated, he had quietly become one of the most respected students on campus. At graduation, he received an award that honored him for capturing the spirit of the liberal arts as a lifelong pursuit—and a standing ovation. Mayor George Latimer proclaimed May 2 Noah Spencer Smith Day in St. Paul. “It was clear that he was a person of tremendous integrity,” says Roetzel. “He was very wise.”

Smith went on to earn a degree from New Brighton’s United Theological Seminary, and has continued preaching. He still occasionally preaches at Wayman and has a variety of other responsibilities at the church, including leading a weekly Bible study, filling in for the church’s drummer, and helping with worship services. He’s happy to tackle anything that’s handed to him, and acknowledges that taking life as it comes is one of the most important lessons he’s learned in his century on the planet. “I don’t set up an agenda for every day,” he says. “I just get up and meet whatever shows up.”

Though he has delivered sermons for more than 50 years, he never tires of it. “I’ll never quit learning,” he says. “I can pick up my Bible any time and find something that I overlooked or that has a deeper meaning.
You never retire as long as God gives you life.”

That Smith is still making an impact was clear when he was featured in a recent [Minneapolis] Star Tribune article about his work at the church. That kind of publicity can give a person a big head, he acknowledges, but he tries to stay humble. “I read that there are more than 400,000 people over age 100, and that number’s getting larger every day,” he says. “Knowing that keeps me from feeling like too big
a celebrity.”

Minneapolis writer ERIN PETERSON is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.