The theme for this year’s Chautauqua Lecture Series at Eastern Kentucky University is “Order and Chaos,” and no speaker embodies that duality quite like Missy Jenkins Smith.
It was a chilly December morning in 1997 at Heath High School near Paducah, Kentucky. Smith, then a 15-year-old sophomore, was gathered with classmates for a peaceful morning prayer in the school’s lobby. Seconds later, a classmate opened fire, leaving three in her circle dead and Smith’s life forever changed.
Paralyzed from the waist down, she refused to accept her disability as a life sentence, even forgiving the 14-year-old shooter just hours after the tragedy. Smith has spent the subsequent years traveling nationwide, sharing her story of recovery, healing, forgiveness and resilience.
On Thursday, Oct. 6, Smith will present “I Choose to Be Happy: Triumphing over Tragedy” at 7:30 p.m. in O’Donnell Hall of the Whitlock Building. The event, free and open to the public, serves as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Awareness Month keynote address at the University.
The lecture title parallels her compelling 2008 memoir, “I Choose to Be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor’s Story of Triumph over Tragedy,” about which fellow native Kentuckian and ABC News Journalist Diane Sawyer declared, “Missy breaks your heart, puts it back together again, and makes you a believer – in forgiveness, faith and how the strength of one girl can change the world.”
Sarah Brady, whose husband, Jim, was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, wrote in the foreword to Smith’s book: “Some may read this and simply realize that her plight can put a bad day in perspective. Others may be able to relate to the more complex lessons she offers, such as the importance of forgiving the one who hurt you the most. But one thing is certain: there’s a lesson in here for everyone, young and old.”
After graduating from Heath, Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from Murray State University and become a counselor for troubled youth at a day treatment center. Along the way, she got married and gave birth to two healthy sons.
She has been named Kentuckian of the Year and one of Ladies Home Journal’s “Most Fascinating Women.” Smith has appeared on television shows such as “Oprah,” “Good Morning America,” “Dateline” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” and appeared on stage as nominee Al Gore’s guest at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. In addition, she was honored by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as “a leader in encouraging youth involvement in crime prevention.”
The Smith lecture is sponsored by the Americans with Disabilities Act Awareness Committee, the Office of Diversity and EKU Honors.