The world may be a bigger, more complicated place than it was when she was born in 1901, but Constance Scovill Small remains a shining point of reference as steady as a lighthouse. To those who have read her book The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife or have heard one of her nearly 600 lectures, she is the “First Lady of Light,” a beacon of joy and optimism.
Connie was born into a Maine family that included sea captains and lighthouse keepers. It was no wonder she took a shine to Elson Leroy Small, a young man from a similar background. Connie had dreams of being an artist or writer, but when Elson asked, “Do you love me enough to go with me on a lighthouse?” she knew she “had to say yes.” They were soon married.
Elson became first assistant keeper at Lubec Channel Light, the local lighthouse whose “sweet bell tones,” Connie wrote, “had entered my soul and stayed.” Connie thought she could never make the climb up the ladder that led to the deck of the lighthouse. “Oh yes, you can,” Elson told her. As she climbed to the deck with her husband behind her, he told her to look up and never look down - words she has lived by ever since.
Connie and Elson had a 28-year career at lighthouse stations including Maine’s Avery Rock, Seguin Island and St. Croix Island, and New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Portsmouth Harbor Light Station was their first home with electricity. The modern conveniences were a thrill, but Connie says that it didn’t feel right to be able to turn on the lighthouse’s electric lamp by simply pushing a button. Up until then, she and Elson had invested a great deal of themselves into the finicky kerosene-fueled lights.
Through joy and adversity, Connie remained devoted to her husband and to the best traditions of the Lighthouse Service. Some years after Elson’s death in 1960, a woman in a social club said to Connie, “How on earth could anyone have any kind of a life in a lighthouse?” That started Connie on a mission that led to the publication of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife when she was 85 years old.
Connie has been featured in many TV documentaries and her lectures have taken her to schools and organizations large and small. In 1997 former President George H. W. Bush thanked Connie for her dedication and called her one of his “points of light.” A gathering of over 300 people helped the American Lighthouse Foundation celebrate her 100th birthday in 2001, and the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse have named Connie their honorary chairperson.
In her book Connie remembered the day in 1948 when she and Elson retired from lighthouse life. She wrote that she was saying good-bye to a “life of order and duty.” Little did she know then that many of her greatest contributions lay ahead. More than half a century later, Connie continues to inspire with her humble warmth and wisdom.
Connie Small will celebrate her 102nd birthday on June 4, 2003. Cards may be mailed to: Connie Small, Mark Wentworth Home, 346 Pleasant St., Portsmouth, NH 03801-4536.
This story appeared in the
June 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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