Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 20, 2007

America's oldest Girl Scout turns 101

Palo Alto resident is still going strong

by Thea Lamkin-Carughi

Marianne Crowder of Palo Alto received a surprising call in February.

Five years earlier she had discovered her ancient "Eaglet" uniform, a brown dress speckled with badges and medals, in the depths of her closet. She decided to wrap it up and send it to her former Girl Scout Council in Colorado Springs, Colo.

This January, the council began a hunt for the oldest Girl Scout in the United States. When they scoured their archives and old troop minutes, they found mention of Marian Elser, the same woman who had sent them her old brown uniform.

The search was over.

"I'm the oldest Girl Scout in the country. It's so funny, it is," said Crowder, who will turn 101 on Monday.

In March Crowder followed her uniform to Colorado Springs to be recognized as the country's oldest living Girl Scout, six years older than the organization itself.

Crowder was no stranger to acknowledgement. The council had stumbled upon a woman already renowned for her career in dance and corrective exercise; her time in the Girl Scouts was just the beginning of a life of uncommon vitality.

Crowder taught dance for 78 years, divulging a philosophy of movement to her students that was meant to promote inner peace and health. Her medical bill for last year, amounting to $70 in dental work, confirms its legitimacy.

"Oh no, I don't take pills. Once in a while I'll have an aspirin," she said.

Crowder does not flaunt her success but instead sees her talent as a gift she was obliged to use.

"It's been luck all the way," she said modestly.

Even old age hasn't stopped her. Today she can be found every Monday night in Menlo Park, taking part in the "correctives" class "Forever Fit" that she created more than 50 years ago. Her daughter, Sue Chiappone, took over for Crowder as the teacher in 2001.

The Burgess Recreation Center studio in Menlo Park, with its high roof and springy wooden floors, was built to accommodate Crowder's large classes in the 1961. Now six other students follow Chiappone in the series of gentle exercises that range from "inchworm" foot flexes to difficult poses.

"It's fundamentally about posture and alignment," Crowder said.

Bouncy, jazzy piano tunes set the pace for the class, and she is often the only student who manages to stay in rhythm. As the other students strain to watch Chiappone and duplicate some of the most challenging positions, Crowder's limbs move of their own accord, the memories ingrained in her very muscles.

She begins to wheeze softly as the class moves along, and her body refuses to bend in the ways it used to. But on the verge of turning 101, Crowder has nothing to be ashamed of.

She is a short woman, with a head full of neatly coiffed curls. Her smile is bright and constant, her eyes opened wide in an almost surprised expression. One can imagine she has worn that same smile since her girlhood.

Crowder was born on April 23, 1906, in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the headquarters of the Girl Scouts Wagon Wheel Council were located. She joined the Scouts in 1918, and filled her time working with her patrol with her friends.

"We had to make bandages, hours of bandages. We did anything that they asked us to do," she recalled.

But the passion that would really shape the path of her life was dancing. Her mother had her begin ballet training when she was only 4, and she proceeded to learn several dance styles. Crowder soon realized that there was nothing else she'd rather do.

"I did have talent, and I think then things are easier for you, so you can do more," she said.

By the time she was 19, she had already begun teaching at the Cheyenne Mountain School, were she helped to build a renowned folk-dancing program.

The Perry Mansfield dance camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo., provided the main thrust to her dance career. She trained intensively there, performing with their dance troupes and eventually becoming a teacher there as well.

During one performance in the '30s, she broke all the toes on one foot in an on-stage accident, and she was forced to end her career as a professional dancer. Crowder continued to teach all over the state until she met Paul Crowder in 1939.

Soon afterwards, she and her new husband headed west to the Bay Area aboard a trailer. After six years of family life raising two daughters and a step-son, she began to penetrate the local dance scene.

She eventually became involved in the Stanford University Dance and Drama Department, where she taught her developed philosophy movement and choreography.

Meanwhile in Burgess she held dance classes for young girls and occasionally put on choreographed performances with help from her Stanford students and aided by her husband's writing abilities.

Some time later she began to focus on teaching corrective exercises, as she felt it was time to teach her former dance pupils' mothers. That class developed over time into the well-tailored "Forever Fit" program.

Describing herself as "tireless," Crowder has spent her life enjoying the thrill of each moment and quickly making use of every talent and windfall given her. But more recently, she admits to enduring a drastic change of pace.

"Just recently now, I don't have the energy I did have. I'm lazy, I guess," Crowder said, chuckling.

She spends a great deal of time puttering around her home West Meadow Drive in Palo Alto.

"I like to read philosophy," she said.

For more than 50 years, she has watched the city of Palo Alto rise up around her white, ranch-style house. Today it is full of relics from the past: hand-made furniture, sketches done by old friends, her late husband's books.

Having passed the century mark, she said she has starting feeling unattached to the current times, despite having nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

"I feel out of it, I do. I don't really belong. But I'm glad I'm not obligated any more to do so much," Crowder said.

Few friends are left from the old days who might ease her sense of estrangement, and even recently in Colorado Springs, "none of them were there — I mean, none of my people."

Her daughter Sue gives her invaluable support as a link to the present by carrying on the exercise class her mother created. And every Monday night Crowder returns with Chiappone to her studio to prove she's not through moving yet.

Editorial Intern Thea Lamkin-Carughi can be e-mailed at tlamkin@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Bernice Lock, a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2007 at 6:51 pm

Add another Girl Scout to the category of America's Oldest Girl Scouts. Marie Link, who will turn 104 on September 6, 2007 is among those elite members as well. Not to take anything away from the grand dame who has been given this title, this is testimony to the stuff that makes greatness. While Marie is resident in a nursing home, she counts among her accomplishments forming the first Girl Scout Wing Troop in Elizabeth, New Jersey and meeting astronaut John Glenn on the lawn of the White House in the early 1950's. Girl Scouting is kind of like the Marines in that it builds a few great women and the tradition isn't stopping--proof in that there may be more Girl Scouts who fit into the category that should be considered a part of the greatness of Girl Scouting.


Posted by Former Girl Scout, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 20, 2007 at 12:50 pm

Wow! It's interesting how the girl scouts tradition has endured and continued for such a long time. Probably because Girl Scouts is such a great activity for people. Even older girl scout troops, such as those in high school, are still continuing: Web Link


Posted by Nancy Pugh, a resident of another community
on Nov 21, 2007 at 9:10 am

My Grandmother, Emma Otis, turned 106 on October 22, 2007 and is still a Girl Scout. Here is a link to the story published on our councils web site:


Web Link



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