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The art of living

Professor emerita Crystal Theodore spent a lifetime making hard choices, among them her decision to join the Marine Corps during World War II.
By Nancy Bondurant Jones

Crystal Theodore joined the Marine Corps during World War II

A former JMU art department head, professor emerita Crystal Theodore spent a lifetime making hard choices, among them her decision to join the Marine Corps during World War II.

When President John F. Kennedy spoke of the United States' mission to the moon, saying, "we choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard," former JMU art department head Crystal Theodore understood. Both physically and mentally impressive, this tall, slender Mensa member could have sailed through life with ease. Instead she's spent a lifetime making the hard choices and mastering the challenges. For example, during World War II, she chose to join the Marine Corps "because it was the hardest [branch of service] to get into," especially for a woman.

Coordinating topographical intelligence

And soon after boot camp, she tackled one of the corps' hardest to attain jobs — G-2, the intelligence division. She found herself in Washington, D.C., locked in the War Room, to which only five people in the nation had access, coordinating topographical intelligence. Day by day, battle by battle, she charted Marine Corps encounters with the enemy — advances, retreats, statistics, the entire South Pacific theater taken from intelligence reports and transferred to huge wall maps to give the commandant a clear picture of the war's progress.

Top ratings from her superiors and a promotion to first lieutenant continued Theodore's pattern of excellence, which she had established early in elementary school in Greenville, S.C., although she had begun with an undiagnosed handicap. "I was nearsighted and couldn't see the board, but just assumed it was the same for everyone," she explains, "so math was especially hard, but I got through all right."

Theodore did more than "all right." She managed to make top grades, went on to college and graduated magna cum laude, laughing as she condenses details of her academic success, saying, "by then I had glasses." Theodore feels it is enormously to her father's credit that she went to college during the years of the Great Depression. Her father was a native Greek, who had lived in Turkey and emigrated to the United States to avoid conscription in the Balkan Wars. He was a firm believer in education, so he saw that his eldest daughter went to college, and she, in turn, put her younger sister through. The hard choices paid off. Both sisters earned a Ph.D. and established outstanding careers in their fields — Crystal in art, sister Doris in pharmacology. For Crystal, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, the G.I. Bill, and Carnegie Foundation grants helped secure her master's and doctorate degrees.

A serious view of creativity

Accorded multiple Who's Who listings, Theodore feels her highest honor is inclusion in Who's Who of American Women (2000 edition). She was selected in art and education — certainly the area she's best known for at JMU. She joined the faculty at Madison College in 1957 to head the art department, the same position she held at Huntington College in Montgomery, Ala., and East Tennessee State, following her discharge from the service. She retired from JMU in 1983 after 26 years — with only a one-year hiatus in the '70s to sail around the world teaching art aboard the S.S. Ryndam for World Campus Afloat.

Theodore takes the nurturing of creativity seriously. "The arts do more to engender creativity in all fields than anything else," she says, "They encourage a new way to look at the world."

For Theodore, the choices have not always been easy, but anything less is unacceptable.