At 96, Dempsey Crowell savors the joy of living
By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
June 14, 2012 at 1:14 a.m.
Updated June 15, 2012 at 1:15 a.m.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Dempsey Crowell rummaged through stacks of photos and papers, the evidence of almost a century of living. His voice is tinged with gravel and his face has the look of someone who has lived.
Born June 15, 1916, he has the fuzzy childhood impressions of World War I in his mind and experiences from World War II cut into his body and memory.
As a child, he grew up on a farm just outside of Gonzales. They raised corn, cotton, cattle and hogs. He came of age in the midst of the Great Depression, and people were self-sustaining in a way people now would have a hard time understanding.
"You didn't run out to the store for things," Crowell recalled with a laugh. "Oh the world has changed so much."
Crowell was a country boy, who expected to grow up on the farm and lead a life similar to the one his parents lived, but his path took a different turn.
His parents divorced, and at 15 years old, Crowell found himself shouldering the burdens of a grown man. He quit school and went to work to provide for his mother and younger brothers.
In the next few years, the world itself became a maelstrom, as Adolf Hitler gained control of Germany and began preparing for war. It became clear the war that Crowell vaguely remembered as a child was not the last great war that would be fought in his lifetime.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Crowell tried to enlist, but was turned down because of his bad eyes. He was working in the oil field in Luling when the letter arrived informing him he was drafted. He ended up in a pontoon unit working to put together temporary bridges, allowing the Allied armies to cross rivers as they invaded Europe.
It wasn't a fancy job. He worked in the rain and the cold, struggling to keep his head down and get the job done quickly as German planes buzzed overhead, strafing the men with bullets from their machine guns.
His division was attached to the different armies as needed. Crowell, the boy from Texas with a friendly grin and a gentle drawl, saw Europe as he followed the armies of Gen. George Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. He saw the legendary generals once. They were standing together off in the distance, Patton, barrel-chested with perfect posture, and the slighter shape of Bradley alongside him.
Crowell got hit with shrapnel that lodged in his throat, giving him a voice that would lurch into rasping gravelly tones every so often during conversation for the rest of his life, but he came out of the war in one piece.
He got out of the service just before his 30th birthday, a country boy from Luling who had seen more in the world than he ever expected.
Post-war America was in the midst of an oil boom and Crowell went back in to the oil field, eager to learn more about the trade.
He came back to Texas and went back to life in the oil field. One day, a friend told him to come to Edna, where there was someone he needed to meet.
He stepped off the bus and caught sight of a woman with large green eyes and a confident smile. Her name was Dorothy.
They danced all night, and after that first meeting, the pair became inseparable.
"She was an exceptional person, a wonderful woman," Crowell said. "When I met her, that was it."
When he got the opportunity to work for Petroleum Mexicano, he jumped at the chance. He settled in with the company and started learning Spanish, one of dozens of men who went into Mexico to develop their nascent oil industry.
He was still dating Dorothy, and they traveled as often as they could to see each other.
One day, he turned to her and told her this back-and-forth was silly, foolish. They needed to get married and be together all the time. For the next 52 years, they were.
Crowell tired of the travel and the risk that came with the oil field, and got hired at DuPont. They settled in Victoria and watched history unfold from their small corner of the world.
The Korean War, the Kennedy assassination, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Berlin Wall tumbling down and the two planes sailing into the World Trade Center - they lived through it all.
Crowell didn't understand much about World War II when he was in it, but he gobbled up every book about it he could find in the library after it was over. His favorite was Gen. Bradley's memoir, "A Soldier's Story." He admired Bradley, and read the book to pieces.
In the early 1980s, he waited in El Paso for three weeks to have five minutes with the general. Crowell finally met his hero. Bradley shook his hand and signed Crowell's copy of his book, "with best wishes."
"I've seen a lot of things in my lifetime. When you're in a war like that, when you're just living a normal life, you see things. I've seen a lot of bad things and a lot of good things," he said.
On Friday, Dempsey Crowell turns 96 years old. He is still spry and sharp with a grin that makes his face seem to glow. Dorothy died of cancer in 2001, and he still misses her, but he has decided he'll live to be at least 101 years old.
"I've always thought that would be a good age to see, and now I've made up my mind to do it," he said.
After living just shy of a century, Crowell doesn't pretend to have all of the answers, but he knows he has lived his years well because of one choice he made.
"The most important thing that ever happened to me was when I married Dorothy," Crowell said, pulling a picture of his wife from the stack. "She was the best decision I ever made."