Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Louisiana historian, radio personality looks to leave mark on hometown

Martha Sue Smith laughs while showing a Herald-Whig reporter her
Jake Shane 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 16, 2018 10:45 am

LOUISIANA, Mo. -- At an age when most people are long retired and have slowed down in life, Martha Sue Smith still hosts a daily radio program and is finishing her third book.

The 78-year-old Louisiana, Mo., native credits her parents, particularly her mother, Susana Haley Zook -- who was a performer and a lover of the arts -- with instilling in her a constant desire to continue creating.

Her grandpa's success during the California Gold Rush allowed her parents to live comfortable lives. Her father, John Joseph Zook, started many businesses in Louisiana including a drug store and a sports store, and her mother was a frequent performer in the community.

When Smith's brother entered high school, her father moved the family to Crystal Beach, Fla., so he could enroll his son in the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla. The original Hurley Zook, John Zook's brother, had been a decorated Annapolis Naval Academy graduate but died unexpectedly after graduation. Hurley Zook II had always planned on following in the footsteps of his late namesake by pursuing a naval career, but he was later found to be colorblind and prohibited from joining the Navy.

For most of Smith's educational career, school years were spent in Crystal Beach and summers in Louisiana.

"They'd put everything in storage, rent a house and we'd go," Smith said of the regular moves. "We'd stay for the year and come back. We always knew it was temporary."

Taking after her mother, Smith was drawn to acting.

"Mother was asked to do an assembly at Clopton High School," she said. "She had me with her doing the program, too. Here I am, old enough that I should be embarassed to death, and kind of was, doing this in front of a school."

A high school student at the time, Smith and her mother performed comedic and dramatic readings of poems and different works. Smith's recitation was of the poem, "T'aint Nothin' to Laugh At." Richard Smith, the man she would later marry, was in the audience of that assembly. That was their introduction, but Richard, who was a few years older, didn't ask her out until he began attending the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.

When Smith graduated from high school, she enrolled at Monticello College in Godfrey, Ill., meaning the couple never lived in the same town for the first four years of their relationship. Before he completed school, Richard joined the Army Reserves and was gone for six months. When he returned to school, and they married in 1961.

"He was kind, thoughtful and caring. He was ambitious," Smith said.

Richard became a partner in an agriculture chemical company in Burlington, Iowa, and the family lived there until their two sons, Todd and Allen, graduated high school. When Richard left the partnership, they returned to the Louisiana area to settle on Smith's family farm.

"It didn't take him long to figure out gentleman farming wasn't his bag either," Smith said, "so we put everything in storage and went to Columbia, and he entered law school."

Smith said Richard, then in his early 50s, was the oldest student at the University of Missouri School of Law at the time.

Richard formed a legal practice in Louisiana, and Smith became a legal secretary.

For many years, she has also been pursuing another passion: radio.

"I think it's the drama in me," she said. "I love entertaining, but I'm too self-conscious for TV."

She hosted a morning radio show in Louisiana with Gordon Sanders for 13 years before jumping across the river to joining WBBA in Pittsfield, Ill. She has delivered the Twin Pikes Report with WBBA for seven years, making her a constant radio personality in the area for two decades.

Richard died of lung cancer in 2000. A family friend, Debbie Tophinke and her husband Chuck, helped keep Richard's law practice open for the three months the couple spent at MD Anderson in Texas, while Richard sought treatment. After his death, Debbie Tophinke came by Smith's home every day to keep her company while she grieved.

"I tell people all the time, if it wasn't for Debbie, I wouldn't be here today," Smith said. "I just didn't want to live without him, and I still don't like it."

Smith's attention is directed at finishing her first solo book -- she also has contributed to two other works of historical nonfiction -- which has been a year in the making. Her current book's story revolves around the Smiths' cats, Sid the Cat and Mr. Zook. When Richard got sick, they had to give their all-black cat, Sid, up for adoption. Nine years ago, her son Todd gave her a cat, Mr. Zook, who looked exactly like Sid. The book describes interesting episodes with both cats and leaves the reader to decide if the two cats are actually one-in-the-same.

Smith's friend Helen Krunegel is illustrating the book, which will be published by Acclaim Press.

"In the beginning, we did this for our grandkids," she said, "I just took it a step further."

Smith has always wanted to leave a mark on her hometown. She has joined just about every civic organization or board Louisiana has to offer. Her biggest impact came from serving as charter president of the Louisiana Area Historical Museum for 25 years. Until she retired last year, she was the only president the museum ever had. Upon retiring, she was given the key to the city.

"My interest is not really in history, it's in Louisiana," she said. "I don't claim that I love history. I love Louisiana."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.