Martha E. 'Betty' Smith, 1924-2012: Lenawee Co. soloist taught voice at Adrian


ADRIAN — Martha E. “Betty” Smith, a voice teacher at Adrian College for 35 years who directed choirs and performed as a soloist around Lenawee County, died Wednesday in Tecumseh Place, an assisted living home in Tecumseh, Mich. She was 88.

The longtime Adrian resident was in declining health, her son, Nathan, said.

Both at Adrian College, where she was on the faculty from 1954-89, and in her home, Mrs. Smith most often taught individual vocal students.

“She had a positive exuberant personality,” said Wilnella Bush, who accompanied many of Mrs. Smith’s voice students. “It didn't matter if the student who came in was someone who was superbly talented or with limited ability. ... She knew how to develop each person as much as they could gain.

“She had high standards and expected a lot from them, but there was this encouragement. You learned about living and life.”

Family and friends sponsored a practice room in her honor when the music department built an addition. Former students said through the years: “‘You made all the difference to me in how confident I felt in myself,’” recalled her daughter Martha, who for 27 years was a violinist in the New York City Opera Orchestra.

Mrs. Smith, a lyric soprano, sang through the decades with Adrian’s city band and in recital at the college. She sang and directed choirs at First United Methodist Church, Adrian, where she was a member, and at weddings, club meetings, “any chance she had to perform — and she was [raising] children,” her daughter said. “She sang all the time. If she was washing the floor, she sang. If we were in the car, she sang. If we were in the grocery store, she embarrassed us singing.”

She was an officer in several arts, church, and civic groups, including the Community Concert Board, Opera Lenawee, and the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

She was born Martha Elizabeth Woodward on March 18, 1924, in Kansas City, Mo., to Grace and John Woodward. Her mother listened to opera, and she told herself at age 5 that she wanted to be an opera singer, her daughter said.

The family moved to Chicago, and a grade school teacher recognized her talent and recommended a voice teacher. She studied at the Cosmopolitan Conservatory. At age 18, she had her own voice students. From her early teens on, she performed with orchestras and won radio amateur competitions.

She and her husband, Mahlon “Bud” Smith, originally of Genoa, met when he was in Navy officer training near Chicago. They exchanged letters when he fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and they married in June, 1946.

He went to Miami University on the GI Bill. She continued her music studies there. They moved to Adrian in 1949 when he got a job teaching in the public schools. He died in March, 1997.

Surviving are her daughters, Martha Gale, Melissa Stimson, Laura Blackburn, and Sarah Williams; son, Nathan Smith; 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial celebration of life will be at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in First United Methodist Church, Adrian, where the family will receive friends after 1:30 p.m. Arrangements are by the Wagley Funeral Home.

The family suggests tributes to the church; the Adrian College department of music, or Hospice of Lenawee.