The Three Village area is filled with history and no one knows this better than educator Donna Smith.
A former four grade teacher at Setauket Elementary School and the current director of education at the Three Village Historical Society, Smith has gone above and beyond to ensure that residents of all ages are educated on the importance of the area’s history. In addition to her work with the historical society, she is also an active member of Stony Brook Community Church, where her co-lay leader Gail Chase described her as “an energizer bunny,” who just keeps going and going.
Smith’s daughter, Kerri, credits her mother’s energy to being young at heart. Describing her mother as her best friend, she said Smith, who grew up in Stony Brook and still lives in the hamlet, loves connecting with the community, especially when it comes to sharing her knowledge of local history.
The subject was often a point of conversation in the Smith home, where Kerri, who is now a history teacher, said she and her brother Brendan heard many history stories from their mother and father, James. Kerri Smith said she feels her mother developed her passion for the subject growing up with a father who was passionate about education and giving back to the community.
“I think it was just growing up here and having a fascination with understanding our roots and sharing that with other people,” her daughter said.
Beverly Tyler, TVHS historian, has known Smith since the 1990s when she invited him to talk to her fourth-grade students. One of her projects involved the children choosing a historic house in the community and learning more about it. They would often ask the homeowners questions, but when they weren’t available, they would talk to Tyler — or if they chose a church or library, someone associated with the entity.
During her tenure with the school district, Smith and Tyler worked together on a countrywide/local history manual project called Pathways through the American Association for State and Local History.
Smith was about to retire from teaching when her husband died in 2005, so she decided to remain with the school district for another few years. For the 350th anniversary of the Town of Brookhaven, Tyler said she invited all fourth-graders in the town to the Village Green to be part of the reenactment of Native Americans signing over their territory. The day inspired the Founders Day program, where Smith and Tyler joined forces with town historian Barbara Russell. Tyler said Smith was instrumental in convincing the school district that the program was important.
The duo later added a walking tour of various historical properties in the area to the project and, for a period of time, the auditorium of Setauket Elementary School was opened for all to view the Vance Locke murals depicting local history.
This summer, the American Association for State and Local History presented an award of excellence to the historical society for the program.
“The person who really coalesces this together was Donna,” Tyler said. “She’s the teacher. She’s the one who knows how to ask the right questions, how to pose things and do it in a way that would reach the kids.”
Smith continues to educate through her work at the historical society with in-school programs that at times can have 50 children on the Woodhull walking tours, where Tyler and Smith teach one class each.
“She’s been very instrumental in being the person who really helps to coordinate this whole activity with the kids in the school, and has gotten the educational program going in the Three Village Historical Society,” he said.
The local historian said Smith took history programs used by the society in the past and narrowed them down to the activities she knew people wanted. In conjunction with Betsy Knox, a librarian at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, Smith and Tyler worked with a history club at the school toward an updated Founders Day program geared at the junior high school level. They also work with high school students, using original historical documents and encouraging them to be active in the discussions.
“Without Donna it would have been impossible to do any of these programs,” Tyler said, adding she has an incredible grasp of teaching methods.
The historian said Smith worked with him on the book “Discover Setauket, Brookhaven’s Original Settlement,” and he said she was instrumental in producing the book and getting it to a point where it was more effective.
In addition to her work on the educational side of the historical society, Smith assists at many of its events and has played characters in the society’s annual Spirits Tour as well as at Culper Spy Day.
Chase agreed that Smith is impressive when it comes to history.
“She has certainly made that come alive, and she takes those responsibilities very seriously,” Chase said. “It’s a pleasure to watch her in action when she gives her talks about the local history and her involvement with the Culper Spy story.”
Chase said Smith’s passion for community extends beyond history with her church work, and added that she’s known the educator since the 1960s. As a co-lay leader, Smith sits in on every committee, and is co-chair of the church council and the church’s annual Apple Festival. In the past, she has also contributed to the church community as a Sunday school teacher and superintendent.
“She had and has a very active life in the church and is very important to us,” Chase said.
Chase described Smith as outgoing, welcoming and loyal in her friendships.
“She really takes pleasure in doing things for other people, especially welcoming new members of the church,” Chase said. “If anyone is ill or having a tough time, she will often make them a dinner. She’s just a terrific person.”