Helen Crossley was born the year that the Ford Model T was invented, when Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. She was born before the discovery of penicillin and the invention of the modern zipper; she can remember when her home in Virginia got its first light bulb and can recall the rationing rules during the first world war.
On Saturday, her 105th birthday, Crossley has a lot to look back on — and still finds more to look forward to.
Trim and petite, Crossley has a place in the independent living wing at Culpepper Garden, a retirement home in Arlington County for low- and moderate-income seniors, where she has lived for 32 years. She has been legally blind for six years, but gets around — sometimes using a walker and sometimes walking unaided. Staff members often marvel as she assists other residents who are decades younger.
Asked for the secret to her longevity, she enjoys chirping her favorite line: “This lassie’s taken care of her chassis.” After decades of nursing, she would know.
Crossley graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1930, and she still keeps a page from the yearbook — The X-Ray — that says the 22-year-old woman pictured there in fashionable pin curls was a basketball player, a dramatic actress and a contributor to the Skull and Bones school newspaper.
Her nursing degree took her from her native Virginia to jobs in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Dallas and a boarding school in North Carolina for Seminole and Cherokee students. It also brought her to her husband.
She was tending a woman in the hospital, and Crossley’s future husband came to visit. The patient was his then-girlfriend.Crossley still remembers the first time she saw him: “There he was with his white linen shirt on and a stiff-brimmed straw hat.”
After he visited his ailing girlfriend, Crossley walked him out of the hospital. “I said to myself, he’ll forget my name before he gets in the car,” she recalled. Instead, he called a week later to ask her out to dinner. She was surprised and pleased to find he had not brought his girlfriend along.
He proposed on a New Year’s Eve in New York City. “How would you like to marry me and live with me the rest of your life?” he asked. They wed in 1941.
Ten years later, they made a 19-day voyage to Capetown, South Africa. Crossley’s husband, an engineer for the Packard Motor Car Co., spent three years working for the company in several locations in Africa.
When they returned, Crossley became a school nurse in Prince George’s County. At Culpepper Garden, she keeps black-and-white photographs of her years there. They look as if they could be Norman Rockwell illustrations — Crossley in her crisp white dress and nurse’s cap sticking a thermometer under the tongue of a clean-cut teenage boy in a button-down shirt, Crossley leaning past neat jars of cotton balls to administer to a young girl on a metal cot.
She retired from the school district at 68 but continued to hold a nursing license until age 96. She brought her medical expertise to bear at the bedsides of family members several times.
“That’s the sad part, you see. I got to nurse them all before they died,” she said. Particularly painful was the loss of her only child, a son who died in a car accident on a Christmas Eve at age 23.
She chose to move to Arlington in 1981 because her husband, a World War II veteran, is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, where she also plans to be buried. “You won’t even have to have a hearse,” she joked. “You just put rollers on the casket and give it a push.”
Crossley’s ready humor is renowned among the staff at Culpepper Garden. As a photographer crouched to take her photograph before her birthday, she said to him, “It’s been a long time since a man’s been on his knees to me.”
“You look perfect,” he told her, and she replied, “You’re more blind than I am.”
Although she jokes about her appearance and her mental and physical capabilities, she also knows how well she has fared.
Crossley attends church weekly and, as a music lover, is a regular in the audience when Culpepper Garden hosts concerts or karaoke night.
She credits her continued health to the hard work she did as a child raised on a dairy farm, where every day meant caring for cows and chickens.
She also ascribes much of the credit to God. “Just know the Lord,” she said. “You got it made in the shade when you have Him.”