When a baby comes into the world, most parents dream big about their future. For this child, they know, is the most beautiful, brilliant and talented child ever born. So when Norah and George Gibson's daughter Valerie was twirling around the house at an age when most children are mastering the art of toddling, her parents weren't surprised. Their baby girl was predictably amazing. She could really dance. Norah enrolled Valerie in a ballet class when she was three and it was soon evident that little Valerie was very talented. The Gibsons lived in Carbridge, UK, and by the time Valerie was nine she was boarding with a family in London, having auditioned for and been offered a coveted spot at Sadler's Wells School.
Sadler Wells was founded by the world-famous ballerina Ninnette de Valois who, according to historical records, "was the history of British ballet." At Sadler Wells, Valerie Gibson was in a class of twelve where she took ballet classes all morning and academics all afternoon. Advanced classical ballet classes were then added in the evening. Of the twelve original classmates three survived. Val explained. "Genetic makeup was enormously important and had everything to do with succeeding at Sadler Wells. No matter how good a dancer you were, if you weren't developing a dancer's body they threw you out." Val Smith still has a dancer's body. She's tiny and slender and, even moving around her kitchen brewing coffee and fixing snacks, she's graceful. Of life as a ballerina, Val said, "It was hard work but I did enjoy it and would gladly do it over again."
The Sadler Wells' schedule was enormously stressful and rigorous but apparently the dancers did have some free time. Right "over the road" from Sadler Wells was Saint Paul's School and it was full of fine young men. It was there that Val Gibson, from Carbridge, UK met Cliff Smith from Glasgow, Scotland. This very tall and very handsome young man had received early acceptance at Dartmouth (UK's Naval Academy) and was planning a naval career. Diverse career plans notwithstanding the ballerina and the navy man were soon a couple and they still are.
At sixteen, Valerie Gibson was loaned out to the Old Vic for a season and at the Shakespeare Company she found herself in the cast of "A mid summers night dream" understudying Dame Judy Dench. (Note: I told Val we could stop right here and this little factoid alone would leave the readers satisfied.) "Judy Dench played the role of "Puck" and she never missed a performance." Val laughed at this. "I played the fairy "Mustard Seed."
The young ballerina then went to Covent Garden and the Royal Ballet where she danced for a year and learned from the greats Dame Margot Fontaine, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Baryshnikov. "Everyone trained in the same place so they were always there, just like the rest of us." Val was respectful but not star-struck though she
did say with affection "Margot Fontaine was a star all her life."
She then trained at the Royal Academy Teachers Training School for two years. There she became a teacher of both children and professionals. "Being a teacher meant you had to be a student of philosophy with an expertise in anatomy and physiology. You had to know the body so you could teach dance carefully." A Royal Academy teacher had to not only have an understanding of theatre, art, music and costumes, but also be able to do it all. Val began playing the piano when she was ten.
Cliff Smith graduated from Dartmouth and began his twenty one year-long career in the Royal Navy as an officer and an engineer on nuclear submarines. Val and Cliff were married in 1962 and for the next two decades they moved. They were posted in Plymouth, NE England, Singapore, Kent, Greenwich, Bath, Eden borough and Hollsborough, Scotland. Not one to complain Val took it in stride and found the positive in almost every move. She did say however, without any fondness, that in Scotland it rained 120 inches in a year. "It never stopped."
Their son, Ian, was born in 1964 and his sister, Julia, two years later. Their mom began a teaching career first in Malaysia at an English school and then, while in Greenwich, founded the Orpington School of Ballet. She sold that school and while living in Edenborough opened the Aberdour Academy of Dance. There, with a staff of one and a half, taught ballet to 150 students for four years.
In 1975 Cliff was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, DC to liaise with the staff of Admiral Rickover, and the man himself, on submarine issues. Ian was at the Durham School in England in 1975. Julia came to the colonies with her parents and then went back to England and Harrogate Ladies College in Yorkshire. Val taught for the Washington Ballet Centre d' Dance in Georgetown.
The 80s arrived and with it brought change. Cliff, now retired from the Navy, founded the Allied Defense Corporation and Val became an advocate for victims of AIDS. "I volunteered to look after young adults with AIDS who lived in a communal house owned by the Whitman Walker Center." She said. "In those days the life expectancy of an AIDS patient was a year or less and little was known about the disease. I was a companion at the house for eight years. Ian and I put on many fundraising events for Whitman Walker and began Kids Count which raised money for children with AIDS. I walked in protest marches ad got a temp job at NIH to try and find out more about the related diseases and new drugs coming up."
This work didn't stop when the Smiths moved to Shepherdstown in1997 "I joined the fledgling Board of the AIDS Network of the Eastern Panhandle. Our aim was to help people with HIV an AIDS and bring awareness and education to the five counties in Eastern Panhandle.
Last year Val joined the West Virginia State Appointed HIV/AIDS and Youth Risk Behavior Community Planning Group. Based in Charleston, the Group gathers statistics on health and financial impact of HIV/AIDS, STD's, drug use and other health risks affecting children and adults in West Virginia. The research is the basis for papers and testimony presented to the US House and Senate Health and Human Services Committees backing up the claim that students in West Virginia are significantly more likely to binge drink, use cocaine and methamphetamine, and they're also more likely to get pregnant than anywhere else in America.
When Val met Joan Piemme, a fellow AIDS Network Board member, they had both read about the huge number of children who were being abused and neglected in the Eastern Panhandle and wanted to do something. "We decided to train as volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and learn how to speak for these children in court and find them a safe and permanent home. Unfortunately the CASA program folded in 2003. Joan and I decided to start a new program." Today CASA has a full time staff and seventy seven CASA volunteers have taken care of 272 children since the program was reborn. With the child as the primary concern the CASA volunteer goal is to reunite the family whenever possible.
In Shepherdstown, the hometown Val calls charming and kind, she and Cliff are happily surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Ian, the owner of Allied Defense in Martinsburg, and famous philatelist specializing in historical stamps of Great Britain and China, lives with his partner, artist David Womack, in the country between Shepherdstown and Martinsburg. Julia Lam and her sons, Collin (18) and Duncan (15) live in Shepherdstown. Julia works at SAIC planning medical conferences for NIH. Collin goes to WVU and is majoring in philosophy. Duncan is at Jefferson High and this sophomore has an agent and a manager. Duncan does advertisement work in film and television.
On May 29 Val and Cliff will be at the Bavarian Inn for the 2nd annual Friends of Music Tuxedo Junction benefit for the Shepherd University department of music. Val and Rob Northrup are co-chairs of the event. "It's during times of war and stress and hardship when people need great music more than ever." She said. "Music is uplifting, it soothes the soul. And for a small university to have achieved so much, it must be nurtured."
Then, at six o'clock the next morning (May 30), Val and Cliff will be on their way to the 100-mile mark of ROCK (Ride for CASA Kids) to hand out sandwiches and water to hundreds of bicyclists. Last year ROCK raised $28,000 for CASA. This year, because of the economy, Val will only say, "We're trying; we're doing the best we can."
(Note #2. There's still time to sign up folks.) How's that for a busy weekend?
She laughingly said "Well there are twenty-four hours in a day." And to fill those remaining, Val recently became an agent for Greentree Realty.
Her life is certainly not all work. Val adores her grandsons and is very proud of the fact that Duncan invited her on to his Facebook. Her secret "If you want your grandchildren to keep in touch you have to text or twitter and they'll get right back." Apparently email is so yesterday.
As Charter members of "Brits Behaving Badly," Val and other proper British ladies of the town: daughter Julia, Christine Parfitt, Carol Asam, Janet Means and Judith Briod, are a close-knit, fun-loving, group for friends who get together all the time. The Smith's home, overlooking the golf course at Cress Creek, is as you would expect it to be one of understated elegance and gracious comfort.
If you think this sounds a bit like the Americanized version of a regal yet genteel life, you're right. But don't for a minute kid yourself. Val Smith is tough and no-nonsense where it matters. When it involves HIV/AIDS, CASA and Shepherd University, it matters. She loves America and Shepherdstown and is acutely aware of how lucky she is. It's her firm belief that "America gives you the opportunity to try anything and not be afraid to fail. If you work hard anyone can make something of their luck." That is true but it's also true that too many of our children need a "friend," to do battle for them, give them a hand up, and help them to improve their luck.
Val Smith's life has always been one of enormous accomplishment and great success and being that "friend" is what she does best.
- Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award-winning screenplay writer.