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 Montpelier Magazine

Above: Professor emeritus of art Crystal Theodore helped to creae the first art education television series in Tennessee (1955), while serving on the faculty of East Tennessee State University.

The Art of Living

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.

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.

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.

In 1971, Theodore encountered two former students from her art class in Tennessee -- Ronald and Edith Carrier. JMU's newly appointed president and his wife had both studied under Theodore. But the president reminded his former professor that while Edith had earned an 'A' in the course, he had been awarded only a 'C.' Thirty years later, Theodore made amends by recognizing Carrier with a special certificate -- with a large 'A' -- for his contributions to arts in the community.

Other notable students included future JMU history professor Caroline Marshall and state superintendent of art education Baylor Nichols. Theodore's art history class attracted not only students but also wives of faculty members, like Dean Percy Warren's wife, Alberta, and Dean Charles Caldwell's wife, Evelyn. The popularity of Theodore's classes was double-edged. When 167 students enrolled in the single art history course offered one year, her class was moved to the auditorium at Anthony-Seeger, and Theodore says, "It was too big."

At 83, Theodore is actively devoted to promoting the arts in Harrisonburg. Her most recent success was spearheading a coalition of community arts groups to form a Council of the Arts to work toward establishing a community arts center. This September, the council met that goal. The newly named Shenandoah Council of the Arts opened OASIS, a cooperative art gallery in downtown Harrisonburg. Theodore led the council's fund-raising appeal to the Harrisonburg City Council, which issued a $25,000 seed money grant. The gallery opened with 33 local artists' works on exhibit, including Theodore's.

Theodore continues to paint and exhibit. This year, she placed second in the National Christian Fine Arts Exhibition at Farmington, N.M. Last year, she won two awards in the Virginia Watercolor Society Show at Roanoke College. Theodore also volunteers for her church and other community organizations, speaks publicly on the arts and judges art shows across the state.

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.

by Nancy Bondurant Jones