If anyone knows the city of Waterville well, it’s Earl Smith.

And Smith, author, historian, former journalist and dean of Colby College, has written a book so beautifully wrought I felt as if I were planted in 1950s Waterville, at Head of Falls on the banks of the Kennebec River.

It was a time when the old Wyandotte woolen mill cranked away day and night, its looms rumbling, and mill workers from the Hollingsworth & Whitney paper mill across the river traversed the Two Cent Bridge as the putrid smell of sulfur permeated the air.

The French and Lebanese families who lived at Head of Falls were hardworking people. They lived in small houses and tenements along the river and while they were poor, their lives were rich in culture and friendship.

Smith’s book “Head of Falls” is a tale of a teen-age Lebanese girl, Angela Jamal, who lives on the riverfront with an abusive, alcoholic father; a stalwart mother; and an elder brother whom she admires. The hardness of her life is buoyed by her friendship with pal Margaux, a rambunctious character we won’t soon forget, and Mr. M, an old man who befriends Angela and teaches her to play the piano in his small house on King Court.

I won’t say too much more about this work of historical fiction, written in the first person of Angela — and in the present tense — because I’d spoil it for you, and this is not a book review. But I’ll say that, especially after a depressing and divisive election season, it’s just what the doctor ordered and makes a perfect Christmas gift for young and old alike, particularly those who love Waterville.

It is a gift, a sweet reflection of 1950s Waterville, an era Smith knows well, having grown up in the north end of the city and graduated from Waterville High School in 1957, just as Angela does. While he did not live on the riverfront, Smith had friends who did and he captures the time, the music and the rhythm of the busy city to a T.

His motive in writing the book, which took two years, was to pay tribute to the Lebanese people and to provide a testament to their lives, he said.

“It’s about place, and it’s about people — and the Lebanese people are wonderful people,” he said. “It was a very mystical time, the ’50s. It was this community. The Lebanese were Syrians when they first came here because Lebanon had not yet broken off from Syria, so in my youth they were known as Syrians. It has always fascinated me that in this community everyone got along well. They were Arabic and there were Jews and French and Irish — they all had their separate neighborhoods. It’s sort of nice to be a community where we don’t have these kinds of tensions at all. That’s what Waterville was like.”

Smith, 76, was born in 1939 at Sisters Hospital on College Avenue, grew up on Roosevelt Avenue with his father, who operated a grain store on North Street, and his mother, a registered nurse who worked at Seton Hospital, and two brothers. After graduating from high school, he got a job at the Morning Sentinel.

“I worked in the old building on Silver Street where they set type and corrected type. I’d run copy upstairs and was forever in Thayer Hospital emergency room because I kept cutting myself,” he recalled. “They finally said, ‘You’re really not cut out for this type of thing. You have to go to work in the editorial department.’ I started to work for Bob Drake, the editor, and he was the one who said, ‘You should go to college.'”

Smith got a journalism degree from University of Maine, in Orono, and was offered a night job at the Sentinel, putting together the front page for $5,000 a year. At the same time, Colby offered him a day job in the public affairs office for the same pay. By that time he was married, had a child and another on the way, so he chose the day job at Colby.

“I stayed there 40 years, first as news assistant, photographer and then director of student activities in the ’60s, associate dean of students, dean of students and then dean of the college. I retired in 2004 and I’m still the college historian.”

“I enjoyed going to work every day. There were huge changes at Colby over those 40 years. It went from being a regional college to eventually being an international school like it is today. It became bigger and better.”

Smith and his wife, Barbara, have three children, Kelly, Jeffrey and Michael. Now living in Belgrade Lakes, Smith has published four other books: “Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College,” “With the Help of Friends: A History of the Colby Art Museum,” “The Dam Committee” and “More Dam Trouble.”

His history of Colby includes a detailed account of the college’s beginnings in 1813 in Waterville; its move from downtown to Mayflower Hill; and its symbiotic relationship with the city, which helped Colby survive early on when it suffered tough financial times.

The current efforts by the city and Colby to revitalize downtown and rejuvenate the riverfront are no surprise to Smith.

“I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I think it’s right for Colby to step up and do that. Somebody has to do it, and it makes sense for Colby to do it. Waterville saved Colby. Colby’s saving Waterville — it’s as simple as that.”

Smith’s life as a writer involves a lot of hard work. He is at the keyboard at 5 a.m. every day and remains there until 8 or 9 a.m., writing and re-writing.

“If I write 500 words, that’s fine — that’s enough. I may spend the next day taking it apart. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning'”? Lots of re-writing, over and over and over. You’ve got to get it just right.”

“Head of Falls,” published and just released by North Country Press, is available at The Children’s Book Cellar in downtown Waterville, as well as at the Colby bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Smith will have a book opening and signing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Waterville Public Library, where entertainment by The Megalomaniacs, a Colby a capella group will perform. Smith’s granddaughter, Emily, a Colby student to whom his book is dedicated, sings in the group.

Smith said he feels better about “Head of Falls” than about any of his other works because of the positive feedback he has received.

“You don’t make any money from it, but you have fun,” he said of writing books. “You bring a little joy to people’s lives.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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