Music is a form of resilience in Anderson, Indiana. Once a hub for twenty now-defunct General Motors plants, the people of Anderson have a shared legacy of tenacity. The city played a pivotal role in the country’s car manufacturing industry, the details of which are documented in The Herald Bulletin book “The Auto Industry of Madison County: A History of Innovation.”

The Herald Bulletin’s editor, Scott Underwood, is quick to underscore the city’s prominence in an industry that helped shape the nation. “From the turn of the century when the auto industry started through the GM years,” he mentioned in a 2013 interview, “some of the most important plants in the world were located in Anderson.” In fact, these plants employed 24,000 people in their heyday. But as the auto industry transitioned to more electronic components, the plants in Anderson were ultimately closed, leaving behind abandoned lots and dwindling bank accounts.

Man at organ
Photo by Randy Titus

But despite the tremors of economic impact brought on by the plant closures, the community persevered and was even featured on a 2009 episode of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Through the years, however, one landmark has remained a steadfast symbol of the city’s fortitude.

The Paramount Theater opened its doors in 1929, just as The Great Depression swept across the country. The theater offered patrons vaudeville and movies and housed a gilded Grande Page Pipe Organ, which provided musical accompaniment for the films. The Paramount – and its extraordinary pipe organ – offered people a place to come together as a community; it offered a reprieve from the worries of the day.

Lion tracks recordThe Paramount Heritage Foundation and patrons have maintained the much-loved theater over the years, and it hosts a variety of shows – from rock bands to comedians. Many of the shows look much different from those of the early days, but the theater, much like the community itself, is resilient. It has even survived the pandemic, and still provides the opportunity to put aside the stress of the day and use the arts as a form of community solace. And that gleaming, golden pipe organ still rises from below stage, often with a brilliant musician and steadfast Lion of nearly 60 years at its keyboard.

George S. Smith, 1st vice president of the Anderson Noon Lions Club, began his musical journey at just 18-months old and says music – and the way it connects and helps people – is his calling.

In 1942, when he was just 8 years old George said, “Mom, I don’t like what the world is looking like and I’m somehow going to change it.” To this, she lovingly replied, “Oh George, you can’t do that!”

The young musician, however, was adamant. “Mom, you just watch me!”

So, he started performing at churches and then the Indiana State Fair, eventually earning early success inMan playing organ in parade radio and television. Ultimately, these milestones led to a bustling livelihood providing music for roller skating rinks and, eventually, his own business—George Smith’s Music Center.

As the years rolled on, amidst the changing economic landscape of Anderson, as the city rebuilt on the heels of the GM job loss, Smith felt the call to service. He became a Lion in 1965.

Over these many years, Smith has used his musical gifts for the betterment of his community, largely through his role as a Lion. He’s played the organ in almost all Lions Clubs in Indiana and was named official organist for the National Convention, for which he’s had the honor of playing on multiple occasions. He has fond memories of his custom-made pull-behind float he used to play the organ during the famous Parade of Nations at multiple international conventions. He was even at the keyboard when Nancy Reagan was honored with the Lions Humanitarian Award in San Francisco in 1984.

In addition to these ceremonial honors, Smith’s musical talents have been the backbone of several Lions’ fundraisers and initiatives over the years, benefitting the Lions of Indiana Eye Care Center in Indianapolis and the Lions International Sight-First campaign, among others. In fact, in the 1980s, he even teamed up with fellow Lion PID Gene Rice to record “Lion Tracks,” a one-of-a-kind vinyl record fundraiser.

Club President Randy Titus says Smith’s dedication to expanding membership is unrivaled. “George is our most enthusiastic cheerleader for Lionism. If I see there are guests at our Den meeting, it’s a safe bet they were invited by George,” says Titus. But Smith doesn’t let them stay on the sidelines for long. “He has a stellar record for turning his invited guests into new Lions,” says Titus. “We are fortunate to have him as an Anderson Lion.”

Smith attributes his growth as a Lion to his willingness to learn from others. “I have benefitted so much by visiting other clubs, and in our club I have thought highly of our [members] and studied their personalities so I could be a better Lion.”

And that’s what everyone in Anderson is doing these days—just trying to be better. Whether it’s recovering from a tough bout with COVID or the loss of loved ones, or simply the economic hardships that still plague the town. But they don’t give up. The keep going. Just like George keeps playing his music. Just like the pipe organ keeps coming up from the basement of the Paramount Theater. They are resilient, and they rise.