- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

Irving Berlin's song "God Bless America" has become increasingly popular as America's Operation Enduring Freedom against terrorism continues. Not only do schoolchildren sing it, but it highlights solemn public occasions and even the seventh-inning stretch at Major League Baseball's divisional playoffs.
The singer who originally made the song popular, Kathryn Elizabeth Smith, was better known as Kate Smith. Born in the nation's capital in 1909, she sang in local churches and contests as a teen-ager, until her unique vocal talents a booming, melodious voice attracted a New York City producer.
She had no vocal training, but at age 8, she was a success entertaining World War I troops stationed outside Washington and earned a medal from Gen. John J. Pershing. She finished high school and entered nursing school, then was offered a part in a Broadway musical.
By the 1930s, she began a successful recording and radio career, but not until Armistice Day 1938, when she sang "God Bless America," did her career take a giant step to stardom. Berlin actually had written the song during World War I for a Ziegfeld-type review but put it aside because it seemed too serious for the lighthearted show.
As war clouds threatened Europe in 1938, the composer examined "God Bless America," revised it and gave Kate Smith the approval to use it on radio on Nov. 11, 1938. The song became an instant hit, and Berlin dedicated all royalties then and in the future to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
Kate Smith also sang the song in a popular Irving Berlin movie, "This Is the Army" (1943).
Certainly, she recorded many other songs, estimated at more than 3,000, and earned 19 gold, or million-seller, albums over the years.
Her radio variety show, "The Kate Smith Hour," was the most popular from 1937 to 1945, and from the time she broke into radio until the medium ebbed, she made 15,000 appearances. Her theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," whose lyrics she helped to write, was her vocal fingerprint, and no celebrity worked harder during World War II to rally Americans. She alone was credited with raising more than $600 million in war bonds, singing "God Bless America" at every fund-raising event.
Every U.S. president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan acknowledged Kate Smith with some award or recognition. Mr. Reagan in 1982 presented her with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.
Her career was not without controversy. As the television age dawned, she grew critical of the medium's qualities "bad taste," as she described it, especially after her own TV show, initiated in 1960, folded after one season. However, she was down, but not out. She continued to make guest appearances on TV shows of her choice and to record albums, though her straightforward style of singing seemed out of place in a nation where rock bands were popular.
On Dec. 11, 1969, as a good-luck charm of sorts, her recording of "God Bless America" was played before the start of a critical game for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. After the team won, Kate Smith appeared in person four times at the Spectrum arena, aiding in the Flyers' Stanley Cup victories in 1974 and 1975.
Suffering from the complications of diabetes before her death in 1986 in North Carolina, she was visited in her hospital room by Flyers fans who had come far to repay her for inspiring their teams. Because the vocalist was too weak to sing, the fans sang "God Bless America" to her.

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