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Winifred Hope Smith dies; helped raise Bushman, famed gorilla

Ms. Winnifred Smith Obit photo

Ms. Winnifred Smith Obit photo

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Updated: June 17, 2013 6:39AM

A magnificent silverback gorilla was Winifred Hope Smith’s childhood friend, and her dying comfort.

Bushman was her playmate when both were growing up in Africa — she the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, he the future undisputed star of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

At the end of her life, as she lay in a hospital bed, Mrs. Smith asked to hold a small figurine of Bushman she’d gotten during a visit this year to his final resting place: the Field Museum.

“At the hospital, she would say, ‘Where’s my Bushman?’ ” said her daughter, Linda Hall. “And we would get it for her, and she would put it on the end of her finger. She would hold onto it.

“Then, it would get lost in the sheets, and she would say, ‘Where’s my Bushman?’ And we would find it for her again.”

The Bushman souvenir was given to her in March, when she journeyed to the Field Museum, at age 92, to see the Bushman that museum-goers in Chicago have come to know: his taxidermied remains.

Two and a half weeks after seeing Bushman one final time, Mrs. Smith died April 4 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, the city where she’d settled after a childhood spent traveling between Cameroon and the United States.

When Hall found out that Bushman’s remains were on display at the Field Museum and told her mother, Mrs. Smith said she wanted to see him one last time.

“She’d say, ‘I want to just go to Chicago, then I’ll come home, and I’ll die,’ ” her daughter said.

At the end, Mrs. Smith had long ago lost her command of Bulu, the language she’d learned as a child growing up in Elat, Cameroon, alongside members of the Bulu tribe. Yet she could still remember the Bulu words for John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Her family’s days in Africa were marked by bouts of malaria and, one time, her father’s fall down an elephant hole — a pit dug by hunters. He broke two shoulders. But he was lucky, said Mrs. Smith’s daughter: “Normally, there were spears at the bottom of an elephant pit.”

Bushman’s owner left him with Mrs. Smith’s family for his first year.

“He was a spoiled baby,” she told her nephew, Edward Guthmann, for a 1993 film, “Return to Cameroun,” that he made about a family trip back to Africa. “We carried him around everywhere. And every time we put him down, he’d cry. . . . He’d grab a hold of your leg and sit on your foot, and you’d have to walk around with this big ape hangin’ on your foot.”

She told her nephew that when Bushman was sold to Lincoln Park Zoo in 1931 for $3,500, “It nearly broke our hearts.”

In the 1940s, she visited the zoo. “I went to see him once,” she recalled in the movie. “I like to fantasize that he was giving me a long, hard look — but maybe it was just the leopard coat I had on.”

The gorilla came to be so famous that 120,000 people came to the zoo when he was ill — in one day. Millions more saw newsreel footage about the mighty Bushman, who in his prime weighed 550 pounds. By 1950, Time magazine was calling Bushman the “best known and most popular civic figure in Chicago.” He died at age 22 in 1951, his passing the cause of great grief among Chicago schoolchildren and fans worldwide.

Despite her friendship with the famous gorilla, Mrs. Smith’s childhood was laced with heartbreaking family separations. “She had to have counseling later because of that,” her daughter said.

Each missionary assignment lasted three years, alternating with one year stateside. For most of the period 1907 to 1945, her father, Fred Hope, was in Africa establishing the Frank James Industrial School. Around 1920, her mother, Roberta, returned with her four daughters to the United States and gave birth to a fifth, Winifred. It would be 1,000 days till Winifred went to Africa for the first time and met her father.

“It made me timid to be away from my parents so much,” Mrs. Smith said in the movie. “I was away from Dad until I was 3.”

She, her mother and her sisters spent the next three years in Winona Lake, Ind., where her mother’s parents lived, Guthmann said.

“I was happy to be with my parents wherever they were,” Mrs. Smith said in the movie.

But she wasn’t so fond of some of the African wildlife, particularly the big, sausage-like caterpillars that would drop from trees. “I hated the caterpillars,” she said. “I hated the snakes.”

When she reached high-school age, her parents sent her to a Columbia, S.C., school for the children of missionaries, a bleak place where the girls were not permitted to speak with the boys. It would be three years until she would see her parents, who remained in Cameroon.

When her parents returned from Africa when she was 17, she said in the movie, “It was almost like meeting strangers. It took the entire summer to get acquainted with them. And then they were gone again.”

She moved to Cincinnati to join her sister, Esther. That’s where she met her future husband, Douglas Smith, both of them telephone company workers. They married in 1947.

Mrs. Smith, who donated her body to science, is also survived by a son, Steve; a sister, Betty Munn; four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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