In 1945, when she was at home in New Orleans ironing a place mat, Frances Crowe was alarmed to hear on the radio that in its efforts to end World War II, the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb instantly vaporized tens of thousands of people and ultimately killed as many as 135,000.
She immediately unplugged her iron and went looking for a gathering spot or peace center, to find like-minded people with whom she could share her distress. Unsuccessful, she went into a used-book store, where she searched for material on nonviolence. The bookstore owner suggested Tolstoy.
“So I started reading a collection of Tolstoy’s essays on war and violence,” she recalled years later, “and, you know, that kind of set my direction.”
She was 26 at the time. For the next three-quarters of a century, she would dedicate herself to trying to make the world a more peaceful place.
Ms. Crowe died on Tuesday at her home in Northampton, Mass. She was 100.
Her daughter, Caltha Crowe, said Ms. Crowe had taken to her bed several days ago, a highly unusual development for this energetic centenarian. She said her mother stopped eating and drinking and said, “This body is no longer livable.”
For decades, Ms. Crowe was a fixture in the peace movement and in multiple causes for social justice that swirled around Northampton, the college town where she raised her family.
Ms. Crowe was an instinctive pacifist for almost all her life. Her professional activism began in 1968, when she started counseling young men facing the draft during the Vietnam War about becoming conscientious objectors. Fifty years later, she was arrested for protesting the expansion of a natural gas pipeline through a state forest in western Massachusetts. She was 98 and in a wheelchair.
Soon to turn 100, she said: ‘I don’t want a party. I want an action that will accomplish something.’
“Somebody just told me that at my age, the way to be happy was to play cards all day, and I said, ‘Hogwash!’” she said in an interview for this obituary in November.
“People my age can afford to take risks, to be arrested,” she added. “After you’ve raised your family, now is the time for us, the elders, to act.”
A tiny, sprightly woman with a thick mop of white hair, a pleasant smile and a polite manner that belied her determination, Ms. Crowe was arrested so often that she lost track.
“Not enough,” she said when asked how many times she had been booked. “But probably around 100.”
She said she had been jailed in every state in New England, usually on charges of trespassing or civil disobedience. Her chief cause was protesting nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, which she said was her priority given their power to wipe out life on Earth.
In 1984, she spent a month in federal prison after painting “Thou Shalt Not Kill” on the casings of missile tubes at a nuclear submarine base in Rhode Island; she was released at the urging of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was running for president and hoping to find favor with white liberal New Englanders.
Working in the pre-internet era, she did much of her organizing by the seat of her pants. During the Vietnam War, when she was counseling draft-age men, she would mimeograph fliers with information and then go out and pick up students who were hitchhiking among the colleges in the region.
“I drove back between Northampton and Amherst, spent the day talking to my passengers, saying, ‘Well, what are you going to do about the draft?’ and passing my fliers back from my front seat,” she said in a 2008 oral history interview archived at Smith College. “I drove slow and talked fast.”
She eventually counseled roughly 2,000 young men.
Her list of causes kept growing. She embraced actions against apartheid in South Africa and against the B-1 bomber. She made financial contributions to a cancer clinic in Iraq. She fought for a sustainable environment and rigorously sought to reduce her carbon footprint — eating locally grown food, avoiding buying items that were overly packaged and leaving her car in the driveway, except to take bottles to the recycling center.
In her later years she wrote a memoir, “Finding My Radical Soul” (2014), and protested the nation’s war efforts by refusing to pay federal income taxes. She put her house and other assets in a trust. The government then docked 15 percent of her Social Security check each month.
She gave a third of her tax savings to international peace organizations, a third to American peace organizations and a third to the Northampton public schools.
As she looked forward to her 100th birthday, she told The Times: “I don’t want a party. I want an action that will accomplish something.”
On the day she turned 100 — March 15, 2019 — hundreds of well-wishers swarmed into downtown Northampton. She led a celebratory march in her wheelchair; marchers carried signs supporting the Green New Deal and calling for an end to gun violence and war.
“I see so many young people,” she said, “which gives me great hope.”
Frances Hyde was born in Carthage, Mo. She was one of four daughters of Chauncey William Hyde, who owned a plumbing and heating business and later a flower shop, and Anna (Heidlage) Hyde, a homemaker.
One of her earliest memories was of the town handed out tickets for the best views of the public hanging of a black man. She blurted out to her father that she opposed killing, adding for good measure that she also opposed war. “You wouldn’t say that if you had lived through World War I,” her father admonished.
But she was a natural skeptic, with little use for authority.
“I think that I was kind of born a rebel,” Ms. Crowe said in the oral history interview. She said her older sister always obeyed their parents, and “I decided that I had to do things differently if I were going to be noticed.”
She had grown up an observant Roman Catholic, but by the time she got to college — graduating from Stephens College, a two-year school, in 1939, and then from Syracuse University two years later — she was questioning the faith.
“It seemed to me the church was very hypocritical, that they were opposed to violence and killing but they were sanctioning war,” she said. She also thought women should be priests.
One day, she said, “I just literally walked out of a Mass and never went back.”
She met Thomas J. Crowe at Syracuse, where they both were wrestling with their faith. They married in 1945, and he died in 1997. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her two sons, Jarlaph and Dr. Thomas Hyde Crowe; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
During World War II, she worked in the personnel department of Bell Labs in Manhattan. Her future husband, who had earned his medical degree and was training to be a radiologist, joined the Army. At one point he was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, so she moved to New Orleans to facilitate their visits. They were married there.
“I supported World War II,” she told The Times. “It was Hiroshima and the bombing of Dresden that helped me reach the decision that war was not the answer.”
Their son Jarlaph was born deaf, and the family moved to Massachusetts in the early 1950s so he could attend the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.
Ms. Crowe, who was a homemaker at that point, became active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and in SANE, the antinuclear group, holding meetings in her basement. She began her draft counseling and became involved with the American Friends Service Committee, making contact with and providing a bed for progressive speakers who came through town.
She said she considered herself a Quaker and attended Quaker meetings, but she never formally became one.
Ms. Crowe relied on the rudimentary tools at her disposal to reach people and rouse them to action. This included erecting a radio tower in her backyard to broadcast the progressive global news program “Democracy Now!” before it was widely available over the airwaves.
“I’ve never broken a law that I felt better about,” Ms. Crowe told Amy Goodman, the program’s co-host, in 2005 of her act of piracy. “It gave me a large charge every day.”
At 99, Ms. Crowe attributed her longevity in part to Ms. Goodman. She told The Times, “I get my day started with Amy Goodman, who sets my gyroscope.”
She credited other factors too: “Good genes, growing up in a healthy environment — there was not much pollution in Missouri — eating vegetarian, having a husband who was a physician. And I have a passion for justice. That’s what carries me.”
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