When I originally contacted Representative Rita Smart to interview her for a profile piece, I knew that I would have a chance to learn more about her and how she is settling into her office. What I was not prepared for was the number of times I caught myself putting my pen and paper down and just listening intently as she recited information that helped me get a better grasp on the history of my new city. As a new member of the community, I had so many questions about things that I have observed, and she was more than willing to share her thoughts with me.
When I visited her website, there was a wealth of information about how Rita was raised on a farm and graduated from Nicholas County High School. After graduation, she attended Eastern Kentucky University and later earned a graduate degree from University of Kentucky. When we were visiting, she often would reflect on her time as County Extension Agent, a position she held from 1970-2005. One of my favorite moments was when she was telling me that ladies would stop her in the grocery and ask for a recipe which often times she would be able to recite from memory.
Over the years, Mrs. Smart has worn so many hats and served on numerous committees and boards, always eager to serve and offer her expertise. After her thirty-five years of service as County Extension Agent, she served for four years as the Main Street Coordinator for the City of Richmond. Wanting to continue in public service, she made the decision to run for City Commissioner which launched her political career.
As I entered the Bennett House on a rainy afternoon, Mrs. Smart happened to be just returning from Frankfort on business. She greeted me, gave me a tour of her beautiful bed and breakfast, and we settled in the main room so that she could answer my prepared questions:
What are some important life lessons you learned as a result of being brought up on a farm?
That is where I developed my “philosophy of life” which is to work hard, do right, and to take care of your family and neighbors. Now, if everybody would just mind me, and follow my philosophy, we wouldn’t have any problems. (laughs)
You are a graduate of EKU and UK. If you had to choose an out-of-state college to attend, which would you choose?
Knowing what I know now, if I could go back to school, I would want to study design. I would like to study color theory, and fashion. But if I had to choose a college, I would say George Washington University because it is in such a big city.
Describe the moment you decided to get into politics.
It was during my time serving as the Main Street coordinator. I had so many ideas that I wanted to initiate with revitalizing our downtown area and that is when I decided to run for city commissioner.
Who is your hero?
The person that I always looked up to was my grandmother. My grandfather was a magistrate in Jessamine County, and he passed away before the end of his term. My grandmother was appointed to finish out the remainder of his term and thus became the first female magistrate of Jessamine County.
There are many festivals in Madison County. Which one is your favorite?
Well… I don’t know. (laughs) I like them all. The Berea Arts and Crafts Festival in the summer is nice. I like that it features a lot of local artisans as well as the out-of-state who come in to exhibit. It takes place at the Indian Fort Theatre, and it is a great summer festival. Another one that I really like is the Richmond All-American Festival because it also has the Kids Fest. I love to attend that one with my grandchildren.
What aspect of being State Representative do you enjoy most?
Interacting with people and being able to help people. You would be surprised at the number of requests we get for help because people don’t know where to go for help with things like veterans benefits, senior benefits, and even grandparents who find themselves in a position of trying to get custody of grandchildren. I intercede through constituent services and help people and it’s very rewarding.
Another thing that I wasn’t aware of that I enjoy is submitting names for recognition to receive a citation for service. It is nice to be able to recognize people for their efforts.
Crit Luallen. She is our former State Auditor and she has been in politics a long time. I like that she can see the “big picture” for Kentucky in developing public policy. She is smart and selfless. She also brought mismanagement of state funds to light, and established policies for handling of funds by non-profit organizations.
(For more information on Crit Luallen, please visit her website.)
I am very new to Kentucky- If I told you I had a free weekend, where would you send me to experience something great in the Commonwealth?
I would tell you to take I-75 north and go up to the Kentucky State Horse Park for the afternoon. You would want to spend a few hours there and this would give you a great feeling for the Kentucky horse industry which is very important. From there, I would send you toward Frankfort to go on the bourbon trail to visit the distilleries and learn more about the bourbon making industry. Then I would have you come back and send you down to Renfro Valley. By taking in a show and visiting Renfro Valley, you will get a feel for the country and bluegrass music in Kentucky.
The next day, I would have you go to Boonesborough to learn all about the history and development of Kentucky and I would finish off the weekend by sending you to Natural Bridge State Park. When you visit this state park, you will get a feel for the topography and have a portrait of the landscape of Kentucky.
I feel our county has a lot to offer, but I noticed we were not represented at the state fair. As a business owner and a representative of our county, would you like to see us represented there?
In years past, we have been. It was a decision by the Richmond Tourism Board to use our marketing resources differently. Rather than use our budget to attract other counties in Kentucky to Richmond and Madison County, we wanted to focus more regionally and attract visitors from other states. We do have a lot to offer.
You’ve served on many boards. Which one was the most rewarding?
There was a need. Just the excitement of being selected to work on a project and to see that need met is probably more rewarding than choosing any particular one. I have also noticed that your interests change as you age, too. When I was younger, I wanted to be on boards that dealt with schools and children. As I have gotten older, I find myself more focused on things for seniors.
What is the last book you read?
If you could see my bedside table, you would see stacks of periodicals from various government agencies that relate to my job as State Representative that I read instead of books. My reading habits have changed quite a bit since taking office. I did start reading a book the other day in the library, but as I made it through the beginning, I found myself wanting to go back to my periodical reading because it is just more interesting right now.
The other day, in Smithsonian, I read an interesting article about Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, how he ran it like a business, and the slaves that were there. It made me realize that we put our forefathers on a pedestal even though they were just like us and had flaws. It made me think that we should never put any individual on a high pedestal. It was very interesting, you should read it. (smiles)
You authored the Bennett House Cookbook. Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
That book is a collection of recipes from my days as County Extension Agent, family recipes, and recipes that I have used here at Bennett House. I did three printings of the paperback edition before having it made into a hardbound edition.
I think the Marinated Vegetables is one of my favorites. It is very colorful, it serves many, and it is an easy-to-take addition to a potluck and great for company.
(Note: I mentioned earlier that ladies would stop her in the grocery to ask for recipes which she could recite from memory. She started to recite this one as well and didn’t miss an ingredient.)
How will you celebrate all the fall and winter holidays?
I start decorating The Bennett House for Christmas around November 15th so that I can get a lot of use out of the decorations. We will go to our daughter’s house in Versailles for Thanksgiving.
I also have parties throughout the season here at The Bennett House, but just before Christmas the kids and grandchildren all show up here to spend Christmas which is fun. The grandchildren will have their toys out on the floor just over there by the sofa.
So you don’t rent rooms to the public during Christmas?
We try not to. Occasionally we will have somebody really want to stay here badly and we will try to accommodate.
What would you like to bring to Richmond?
I would like to see sustainable employment for young people. When I look at our world, our global society, I know that all jobs in the future will require a skill. High tech manufacturing, robotics, and computers are the future. Our young people need to develop a mindset that whatever they are going to do will need to be high tech and they need to know math, problem solving, and computers. They will also need to be able to communicate with all types of people and celebrate the diversity around them.
You stay very busy. How do you keep yourself motivated?
I keep a calendar and I try to have about 3-4 things to accomplish each day that I have to do. I really keep so busy that I don’t have time to think about it. (laughs)
If you had an extra $1,000, which charity would you donate it to?
I have been very passionate about Hope’s Wings and its work to help with domestic violence. But right now, I would give it to the St. Paul A.M.E. Church to help them in their efforts to feed the homeless each Thursday.
I probably wouldn’t get to be in it. (laughs) I think I would be better at organizing it than being a contestant. I can do several things a little… play piano, play dulcimer… but I’m not very proficient at any one thing.
What was your favorite television show growing up?
American Bandstand was on every afternoon. We even had a version of it in Lexington on Saturdays in the 60’s. They would invite a different high school each week and show it on local television.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
Opinionated people that don’t have all the facts.
What advice would you give to a person interested in running for office?
Attend training. I was fortunate to be able to participate in Emerge Kentucky, a program for women interested in politics, and it helped me tremendously. The training helps you with every aspect of running a campaign.
How would you describe Madison County in one sentence?
Madison County is one of the historic, cultural, and economic centers in Kentucky.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
How much longer is the world going to exist?
What are your goals for the next month?
Personally, after the election, I’d like to regroup, get the house back in order, do some holiday shopping, and enjoy the grandchildren.
As State Representative, we have a thirty day session coming up in January and we have to get a year’s worth of work done in a month. We are dealing with redistricting, tax reform, and pill mill bill revision. It’s going to be busy.
If you were told you had to compete in the Olympics, which sport would you choose?
I am 64 so I can’t be all that athletic. (laughs) I think I could handle archery. I still have pretty good eyesight.
We live in one of the most fantastic places in the world. We have cultural opportunities now with the EKU Center for the Arts, beautiful parks, easy access to the interstate to be anywhere in no time at all. We have great health care, caring people, and wonderful schools. Don’t be negative when we have so many great things going on.
And with that bit of great advice, our time together came to an end. I can’t thank her enough for inviting me into her home for a visit and making me feel welcome to my new city. I left feeling properly educated on how wonderful Richmond is, and how I will grow to love it more as I continue to write and discover new things. Rita Smart inspires those around her, and I am so happy that I had the chance to visit with her and leave feeling invigorated.