MANCHESTER – Twenty-five years have passed since the tragic death of the little girl from Manchester, Maine, who charmed the world in the middle of the Cold War with a simple but powerful message of peace.

The Cold War is long since over. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

But Samantha Smith’s memory, message and story live on in the children who learned, and are still learning, that one person, even a child, can make a difference.

“I have three girls now, and I always want them to know that what they have to say matters,” said Jessica Dwyer, a childhood friend and classmate of Samantha. “Her message is still important for children to know. It doesn’t matter how small you are. What you have to say matters, and people will listen. All it takes is one person.”

Samantha and her father, teacher Arthur Smith, as well as six other passengers died in a plane crash Aug. 25, 1985, during an attempted landing at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.

They were returning on a Bar Harbor Airlines flight from London, where Samantha, just 13 years old, filmed segments for the ABC television series “Lime Street,” featuring Samantha and actor Robert Wagner.

The TV series was part of the fame that followed her media-scrutinized trip to the Soviet Union in 1983 after her letter to Soviet President Yuri Andropov.

In her letter, Samantha said she had been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war, asked why Andropov wanted to conquer the world, and ended with “God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.”

Andropov eventually responded with a three-page letter of his own.

“We want peace for ourselves and for all people of the planet, for our own kids and for you, Samantha,” Andropov wrote in an April 21, 1983, letter inviting Samantha and her family to the Soviet Union.

During a two-week trip to the Soviet Union, Samantha charmed her hosts and the world with her wide smile and easygoing manner.

She returned a celebrity, with international interviews, including a memorable exchange with Johnny Carson.

Her message is still alive today, in the classroom and on the World Wide Web.

Numerous tributes to Samantha are posted on sites such as YouTube. A Facebook page is dedicated to her. And a former Russian enamored with Samantha, Lena Nelson, created — a website filled with Samantha Smith-related resources.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Jane Smith, of Boothbay, said of her late daughter’s continuing presence on the Internet.

“It’s a nice story, an empowering story for children,” she said. “And it’s part of Maine history.

“I still occasionally get letters from people who tell me her story meant something to them. And now they’re having their own children, or grandchildren, and they’re sharing that story with them. One thing I’ve realized over the years is how much it means to children to realize all these people paid attention to a child.”

That message continues to be shared in the very classrooms Samantha attended as a youngster at Manchester Elementary School.

Teacher Mary O’Brien includes Samantha’s story every year as part of her third graders’ unit on local and Maine history.

“It really touches young people, the idea of making a difference,” O’Brien said. “It’s important for young people to know that they have a voice and it’s important to keep her legacy alive.”

As part of the lesson, students write a letter they think will make a difference.

A large portrait of Samantha still hangs above a staircase at Manchester Elementary. In it, she is holding 13 roses and standing before 12 American and Soviet flags. The portrait, commissioned by California resident Berry Davis, is by artist Andy Anson. Davis drove the painting cross-country himself to deliver it to Jane Smith.

Third-graders finish their lessons on Samantha with a visit to the portrait.

“What a model for kids to know one person can have such an impact,” said Rick Wilson, who recently retired as principal of Manchester Elementary, and had Samantha as a student when he first started at the school as a music teacher. “Everybody has a voice and that voice can be heard, if you just use the right channels. That message is still relevant, absolutely.”

Dwyer, whose maiden name is Jessica Jones, was part of a group of about 20 classmates who, after Samantha’s death, retraced her trip to the Soviet Union in a project called SAME, for Samantha Smith Soviet American Memorial Exchange program.

Jane Smith accompanied her late daughter’s classmates.

“We were trying to keep her spirit and memory alive, and spreading the word about peace,” Dwyer said of the trip.

It included stops in Leningrad; the Black Sea youth camp Artek; and Moscow, where they participated in the opening ceremonies for the Goodwill Games.

After their classmate’s death, Dwyer said, Samantha’s friends sought solace in each other, and with Jane Smith.

“As classmates, we had each other, and the first year or so, we’d go over to her mom’s house frequently,” Dwyer said.

“After that, well, I had a best friend who passed away when I was 13. So it was always there. But we all get busy with our lives.”

Last year, Dwyer spoke about Samantha with her now 9-year-old daughter’s class at Manchester Elementary.

“I was honored and excited to be able to go into my daughter’s classroom and share her memory with them,” Dwyer said.

“She was just one little girl from a small town in Maine, spreading the word of peace.


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