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    In a Century of Change, Three Who Have Seen It All

    By Susan Levine
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 11, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

        George Crisan
    "There is technological improvement, yes, but human improvement, I cannot see it," said District resident George Crisan, 91, of today's world. (By Dudley M. Brooks – The Washington Post)
    George Crisan was born nearly a decade before an archduke's murder triggered the bloodbath of World War I. Elizabeth Campbell already had celebrated her first birthday when the Wright brothers got off the ground at Kitty Hawk. As for Maude Brown, she was nearing grade school the day Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill.

    Back then, Brown was too young to understand the apprehension and excitement that took hold as the calendar edged toward a new century. "When you're 5 or 6 years old," she says, "you don't grasp much."

    Today, though, with the clock again ticking down, there is much to grasp, much to recall. And who better to do that than the men and women who have lived most, if not all, of the last 100 years? The George Crisans and Maude Browns of this country have largely been overlooked in all the hoopla about the coming millennium, but they represent a singular group that has little precedent in history.

    They are unexpected witnesses to an epoch that brought forth Band-Aids and penicillin, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Camel cigarettes, the World Series and Readers Digest, jazz and the theory of relativity. The century opened with the first telegraph message being sent across the Atlantic and is concluding with millions of Internet messages being sent around the world every day.

    These most senior elders have seen it all.

    "They are our reservoirs of memory, of culture, of the emotional tone of the time," said Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University.

    Never before have the reservoirs been as vast or deep. In 1900, only 44,762 people in the United States could claim to be 90 years or older, and just 3,500 of them had reached 100. By comparison, 1.4 million Americans are 90 to 99 years of age today, with an additional 64,000 who are at least 100.

    They remember not just when man landed on the moon but when he first soared into the sky. They remember the terrifying toll of the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918 and the wrenching despair on the soup lines of the Great Depression.

    "It's almost beyond the scope of one's imagination and intellect to comprehend," marveled historian David McCullough, whose biography of Harry S. Truman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

    McCullough considers the 20th century to be without peer in terms of the sweep and acceleration of change and the impact of science and technology on world events. Sometimes that produced stunning progress for humanity and sometimes, in the course of two world wars and the Holocaust, an inhumanity of almost incomprehensible proportion.

    Twelve days ago, sitting in her Arlington kitchen on the penultimate New Year's Eve of the century, Campbell reflected on the changes since her birth in 1902.

    Elizabeth Campbell
    Elizabeth Campbell, 96, of Arlington, became the first woman in the country to start a public television station. (By Susan Biddle – Washington Post)
    "The world has grown much larger," she said. "When I read the papers, I come upon these countries I've never heard of. At the same time, the world has grown so much smaller with television and the Internet."

    Long before Campbell founded WETA – she was the first woman in the country to start a public television station – or advocated the desegregation of the public schools or became, at 27, dean at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, she was a girl growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was small-town America, in a nation that still was far more country than city, but the future was approaching quickly.

    As a young child visiting grandparents in nearby East Bend, Campbell would climb onto a chair, surreptitiously lift a black earpiece hung high on the wall and gleefully listen to all the neighbors' telephone conversations. In East Bend, too, she saw her first automobile, a noisy-to-the-point-of-deafening contraption from Henry Ford that sported one seat and no top.

    When Rudolph Valentino pulled Agnes Ayres close to him in "The Sheik," Campbell was 19 years old – and forbidden to see the movie. Her father was a minister, her mother a piano teacher active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. "I was supposed to set the example," she laughed.

    But the minister's daughter went against her father's wishes and, in the latter 1920s, enrolled in Columbia University for a master's degree. New York City offered musicals and flappers and New Year's Eve in Times Square. There would be dead silence as the ball dropped at midnight. "People were not as sophisticated as they are now. It just all seemed so wondrous," she said.

    At 96, Campbell is slowed but not stooped. She pins her hair in the soft style of a bygone era but is learning to use a computer at her office at WETA. She never expected to live so long. "The years went on, and I was always busy. . . . That's just the way time goes, and you come to the end of a year, and you think, what has made this year momentous?"

    George Crisan, 91, escaped the Iron Curtain in 1948. He is shown with his wife, Eunice, in their District apartment. (By Dudley M. Brooks – The Washington Post)
    Some elders of this generation have taken pen in hand and written about their experiences. George Crisan titled his memoir "An Amazing Life." It is as much the story of cataclysmic political events that forever altered history.

    The retired lawyer was born, more than 91 years ago, in a tiny mountain village in Transylvania that dates to the 1400s. In Tisa, people were illiterate, marriages were arranged and life was primitive. Outhouses would have been luxuries. "We just had a behind-the-house," he allowed. He was the first boy ever to leave his village for school.

    At 7, he watched his father go off to war during the final days of the once-mighty Austro-Hungarian empire. Two decades later, Crisan was himself an officer in the Romanian army, stationed first along the Yugoslav border to guard against a Nazi invasion and then on the Russian front after his country switched allegiance to Germany.

    Compared to that winter in Ukraine – where days were 70 below zero and water froze in midair – everything is relative. "So I will not complain about this cold," he said on a still reasonably frigid afternoon in Washington recently, in the small apartment off Thomas Circle where he and his wife, Eunice, moved last year.

    The aftermath of World War II was the turning point in Crisan's life. He had been a well-established lawyer in the city of Arad. But as the Communist Party seized power throughout Romania, officials jailed him twice, then disbarred him. A marked man, he decided in September 1948 to risk escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Seven borders separated him from true freedom. He crossed the first on hands and knees in a moonlit cornfield.

    George Crisan, third from left in the rear, poses with his family in Romania in 1937. (Family photo)
    "We had to wait while our guide went ahead," Crisan wrote in his book. "His signal to us was to be the light of one match, at which time he would be over the border into Hungary. It was a matter of about 300 yards. . . . The field had been plowed and harrowed in order to easily trace footsteps and to enable the dogs to easily trace trespassers. . . . I lost all sense of time."

    Days later, he reached Vienna and discovered it was possible to take a shower "just by turning a faucet." Months later, in Paris, he chanced upon Jean-Paul Sartre in a Left Bank cafe.

    "Life is an amazing thing granted to each of us," said Crisan, a religious man whose ruminations are full of faith in a greater power. They become bittersweet only when he ponders whether the world at the century's close is a fundamentally better place. "There is technological improvement, yes, but human improvement, I cannot see it."

    The impact of that technology, however, of the developments that eased daily hardships or gave rise to new opportunities, cannot be minimized. Lynn Adler has interviewed thousands of men and women age 100 or older for her work at the National Centenarians Awareness Project, which she founded in Arizona in 1985. "I don't think we who came into this century midway through it can appreciate the advances that were so dramatic in the first half," she said.

    In surveys, she questioned men about what made the biggest difference in their lives in general. The automobile won, hands down. Women were asked to name the greatest labor-saving device to come along this century. Their near-unanimous answer was the washing machine.

    Not the sleek, multispeed wonders of today, of course, but the kind of round, utilitarian tub with hand-cranked wringer that a 1908 Sears catalogue featured. "It was better than a washboard, which was better than having to haul water from the creek," Adler said.

    Longevity could be the most startling result of the powerful cumulative effect of such everyday advances and the century's true scientific breakthroughs. Since 1900, the average life expectancy in this country has jumped to 76 years, a nearly 30-year leap that may never be achieved again.

    Maude Brown
    Maude Brown, 104, has lived in Prince George's County since 1894, but didn't go to the White House until 1997. (By John McDonnell – The Washington Post)
    But Maude Brown, who is 104 and counting, remains nonchalant.

    "When God put me together, he put me together good and tight, so I wouldn't fall apart," she said from an easy chair in the modest but neat house that she shares with a daughter and granddaughter. Brown wears hearing aids and glasses, and she puts in eyedrops daily and infrequently takes a stress pill, but that's the extent of her current medical file. If her health holds, in just 354 more days, she will enter her third century.

    Prince George's County has been her home since 1894, and although she never lived more than 25 miles from the White House, she never set foot in it until her family's singing group performed there during the Christmas holidays in 1997. Brown raised a large family – 15 children, 11 of whom are still living. The oldest is 82, meaning she has seen nearly as much of this century as her mother.

    The family survived the Depression by sharecropping. Brown ironed and cooked at the owner's house. She made her own mattresses, stuffing the rough sacking with hay or straw. The children slept four to a bed, two heads pointed one direction, two pointed the other. Oil lamps supplied their light at night. "Electricity," Brown scoffed, "I didn't know what it was." Not until 1955, the same year she moved to Sheriff Road, just over the District line, did she get running water or a refrigerator to replace her old outside icebox.

        Maude Brown
    Maude Brown, right, stands outside Mount Nebo AME Church in 1951. (Family photo)
    She has voted for decades, although during the days of segregation and poll taxes, she just voted Republican, because that's all blacks were allowed to do. Two of her older daughters recall the GOP offering their mother and neighbors liquor, money and rides to cast a ballot. "You kind of felt funny," Brown admitted. "I guess I didn't know what I was voting for."

    She never drove, and she apparently never went to a movie theater. But if much of the 20th century took place far beyond Brown's door – both literally and figuratively – it bothers her little now. Citations, plaques and photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren cover her tables and walls.

    "I've been satisfied in this world," she said. "I should be, living here 100 years."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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