For the past 20 years I have had the honor of calling Leontine Smith my friend. This past week I had to say goodbye to her. She passed away just before Christmas at the age of 87. It was truly a privilege to have had her in my life.

She had a heart more than twice her "almost 5 feet" stature. Once she caught your attention, you did not have a chance.

I remember going to one of the annual New Haven Animal Shelter fundraisers with her. While there, Lee learned that a special police canine being honored for all his rescues on 9-11 was going to be present. The room was mobbed and Lee had disappeared. And there she was petting that special canine. How she maneuvered that crowd still remains a mystery. Once Lee set her mind to something she would make it happen.

Lee had a zest for life that was contagious. And she devoted her time and energy to the things she believed in - animals, politics, and the environment. She was definitely a tree-hugger believing in land preservation.

Lee started out a city kid - born and raised in New York City but when she met Walter her hidden country girl came out. She embraced the New England countryside and culture. She knew everything about the first settlers in Orange. Journey’s End was her little part of colonial life.

She also had a love of Broadway and a passion for Frank Sinatra. At her 80th birthday party there was a life size cutout of Sinatra. I am sure I have a photo somewhere of Lee posing next to Sinatra.

Her love of animals is legendary. At Journey’s End, the home she and husband Walter built adjacent to their business, Orange Hills Country Club, is home to daughter Judy’s retired New York City Police Department horse Broadway Bob. It is also home to two Sicilian donkeys Lee decided she needed to keep Broadway Bob company. The donkeys have their home right outside the spectacular picture window in the family room. Journey’s End is also home to a variety of birds that frolic outside that same window. And Journey’s End has always been home to dogs she would rescue from the animal shelter.

Lee also loved Christmas, especially decorating her home. Finding the perfect tree was always an adventure for Walter and Lee. Sometimes Lee would go through a couple of trees until she had the right one. Each year, the trees had a different theme.

The holiday would not be complete without the sing-a-long with Tom Ciancia accompanying on the piano. Lee would sit next to him on the piano bench enjoying every single second of the evening. Singing and enjoying family and friends. The evening officially would end with "The 12 Days of Christmas" with Judy pulling out a variety of props for the occasion. But many would always stay and linger enjoying the special camaraderie.

More than 1,100 friends and family members visited Lee at Cody White Funeral Home Sunday, Dec. 27. Before the service at Orange Congregational Church, Lee, followed by immediate family, drove past her beloved Journey’s End home and the golf course one last time. Orange police, stationed at intersections, saluted her.

Orange Congregational Church was packed to the rafters for the service.

Seated at the piano playing Broadway Show tunes was Tom the Piano Player. And the seat next to Tom was painfully empty.

Family and friends said farewell. Daughter Patty remembered her mother’s extraordinary abilities. Grandson Justin read the first verse of a poem he was writing to honor Lee. He said it would take several verses to truly pay tribute to her.

The service ended with Lee’s favorite song - "My Way." The entire congregation joined in rejoicing Lee.

My good friend was taken to her final resting place in the town cemetery. She arrived there with an Orange Police Dept. Honor Guard escort in a horse-drawn hearse. Following her was a trumpeter playing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

While so many of us grapple coming to terms with the loss of such a tremendous woman we can rest assured that Heaven will never be the same with Lee up there adding her 2 cents. We do know that we now have a very special friend looking out for all of us still down here.

I believe people come into our lives for a reason. I am very grateful to have been able to call Lee Smith a friend for the past 20 years. She significantly touched the lives of thousands. That’s charisma!

Bridget Albert is editor of the Milford-Orange Bulletin.