During Women’s History month the MRL Reference Blog features Crystal Theodore, a local artist and educator whose determined efforts raised the profile of the arts and of artists in the Shenandoah Valley.
Crystal Theodore was born in Greenville, SC on July 27, 1917. Her father, James, was a Greek immigrant who was a chocolatier, and her mother, Florence Bell, was from an old South Carolina family. Crystal entered Winthrop College (now University) as a member of the class of 1938. She took art classes, but, she majored in English and Latin as job prospects were thought to be better with this background. Ironically, after graduation Winthrop College hired her to teach drawing and design, which she did for four years. She was a loyal alumnus and the University awarded her professional achievement awards in 1986 and 1998. In the fall of 2008, Theodore was included in an Alumni Art Exhibition at the University. She was the oldest contributor.[i] Oddly, the Director of University art collection reports that the University does not have any of her work in its collection.[ii]
Wanting to be engaged in the war effort, Theodore left the University and joined the Tennessee Valley Authority as a junior draft engineer in the topographical division. She much preferred to join the Marine Corps, but was rejected as she was already “employed in a vital industry…[and]…she was already contributing to the war effort.”[iii] She chose the Marine Corps because it was considered the most challenging branch of the military services. In the spring of 1944, the TVA, during a downsizing, released her.
“One of the Few:” April 1944 – June 1946
On April 24, 1944, on the occasion of her enlistment, the Governor of South Carolina, Olin D. Johnston, in quaint language, designated Crystal Theodore a “living symbol of this momentous event and you shall be known by this Citation as a Patriot in The Governor’s Maids Militaire of South Carolina.” [iv] This “Maid Militaire” was tall, underweight, brown haired with piercing brown eyes, a bad back, broken nose, and bad eyesight. She entered boot camp in May 1944 at Camp Lejeune, NC. She did not think boot camp was too difficult and she liked the precision marching because it felt like dancing. From Lejeune, she was sent to Washington, DC, where her experience at the TVA and artistic talent were employed. Most of her service during the War was considered top secret intelligence and she spent it in two windowless rooms across from the Commandant’s Office. In this space Lt. Theodore plotted daily troop advances and retreats in the South Pacific on 12’ by 16’ maps. The sensitivity of her work required Theodore to live in an apartment off-base in Washington, DC. In this environment she could engage in her art.
After the War, Theodore was heart-broken when ordered to supervise the burning of her maps. This she considered a short-sighted decision by the military, especially while there was a need to follow covert activities. She left active duty in the Service on June 22, 1946 as a Second Lieutenant, but remained in reserve status until 1957. On March 10, 1948, she was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
Theodore decided not to stay in the military because the GI Bills and funding grants were available to pay for a doctorate degree. She also considered herself an “outside the box” type of person, which did not fit well with the regimen of the military. Theodore was glad to serve; she was glad to leave. In 2005, at a local gathering for the Marine Corps birthday celebration, she (at age 88) still said that during her service [she] “never worked so hard in her life. [The War] was a terrible time [and] I felt I had to do these things.” Though she did not specifically follow the role of women in the military, Theodore maintained a life long interest in the role of women in society and their rights. [v] [vi]
The be continued: Crystal Theodore: The Teacher, The Activist, The Artist.
[ii] Winthrop University Gallery Director, Karen Dirksen.
[iii] Veterans History Project. Letter to Crystal Theodore from John L. Clark, Captain, USMCR. 17 February 1944.
[iv] Veterans History Project.
[v] Daily News Record. November 11, 2005.
[vi] In 2006, Cheryl Metz edited for the Library of Congress Veterans Project a volume on Crystal Theodore. A copy of this volume is available in the Library’s Genealogy Room. A taped interview between Theodore and Metz accompanies the volume.