Joanne Huist Smith was busy getting her three children off to school on a cold December morning in 1999, when she discovered a package on her front doorstep. She and her three children — Ben 17, Nicholas 12 and Megan 10 — were facing their first Christmas since the death of husband and father, Richard. No one was in the mood for holiday cheer.
The next day another gift mysteriously appeared, then another and another.
Smith’s new book, “The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle,” chronicles a family’s special version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol. The bright red door on the book’s cover welcomes the reader inside for a glimpse at how a random act of kindness helped a family journey from heartache to healing.
“We were all struggling with grief on our own,” said Smith, a Wright State University graduate. “The gifts brought us back together to solve the mystery and helped us start to function like a family again.”
She hopes “The 13th Gift” will help others who have experienced a loss.
Smith will sign copies of “The 13th Gift” at the Wright State University Bookstore on Monday, Nov. 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The public is invited.
As the gifts continued to arrive, the family tried to catch their Secret Santas in the act, but never did. In fact, their identities remained a mystery to the family until last year.
“I will forever be grateful to them,” Smith said.
Dream of being a writer
Smith decided she wanted to become a writer after reading “Harriet the Spy” at age 9. Just like the character in the book, she began journaling daily.
“’The 13th Gift’ started in the pages of my journal,” she said. “I just didn’t know it at the time.”
Later she wrote a short story, but members of her local writers’ group convinced her to attempt a book.
Smith pitched the story idea to agent Hannah Brown Gordon of New York-based, Literary Foundry & Media at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, last year. She came to terms on a book contract with Harmony Books, a division of Random House, just two days before she retired from the Dayton Daily News on Nov. 22, 2013.
Smith’s life has been a flurry of book-related activity ever since. After writing “The 13th Gift,” she recorded the audio version of the book at a Dayton studio. Her agent has negotiated contracts with publishers around the world, including Italy, Brazil, Japan, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Taiwan.
The Wright State connection
Smith’s college education took a backseat to raising her children. As a stay-at-home mom, she took classes part time until her daughter started kindergarten. Smith shared her dreams of becoming a writer with an advisor in Wright State’s Transfer Student Resource Center, who asked her to bring her writing samples in the next day.
“So I physically brought in one of my husband’s size 13 shoeboxes full of poems and short stories,” she recalled.
The box was filled with pieces of paper, torn bits of napkins and notebooks.
The advisor helped Smith get her first scholarship.
“I had saved enough to take one class per quarter, but with the scholarship I was able to take two or three,” she said. “It was a big help.”
“I always thought I would write fiction, but once I started taking classes at Wright State, I fell in love with journalism and that was very unexpected,” she said. “They showed me the path, put me on it and gave me the skills to get started.”
In fact, her first writing job was as a student writer in Wright State’s former Office of Public Relations.
Scholarships from the English department and the College of Liberal Arts, as well as a stipend as editor of The Guardian student newspaper, allowed her to pursue college full-time her last two years. She also published a short story in Nexus, Wright State’s literary magazine.
During her senior year, Smith began freelancing for the Dayton Daily News, while also writing articles for parenting magazines. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1996, she was hired by the Dayton Daily News, where she shined as an award-winning journalist.
“If it wasn’t for Wright State, I wouldn’t have had a 17-year career in journalism,” she said.
Smith understood the value of her degree when she was left to raise her children on her own.
“Wright State helped to save my family,” she said. “If I hadn’t had that degree and a full-time job, I don’t know what we would have done.”
Smith is working on a second book of creative nonfiction.
“I know whatever I do in life, writing will be a part of it,” she said. “It’s as much a part of who I am as my DNA. Writing makes me happy.”
Wright State is engaged in a $150 million fundraising campaign that promises to further elevate the school’s prominence by expanding scholarships, attracting more top-flight faculty and supporting construction of state-of-the-art facilities. Led by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and Amanda Wright Lane, great grandniece of university namesakes Wilbur and Orville Wright, the campaign has raised more than $107 million so far.