Skip to main content

Something to Crowe about

Asta Crowe has ably handled a variety of duties over four decades, earning a C. Knox Massey Award

Considering the way Asta Crowe grew up, it might have seemed hard to imagine, even for her, that she would end up staying in one place for more than 40 years. Or for that matter, with the same employer.

Her father was a diplomat with the British Foreign Service. Because of him, she got to see parts of the world most children can only read about. Her father’s father, in fact, had been the head of the British Foreign Service and had been involved in the work behind the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

Her father met her mother in Japan in 1931. Her mother was the daughter of a missionary physician from the United States who dedicated his life to founding a hospital in that country.

Given the fact that foreign diplomats are not usually assigned to Chapel Hill, it may seem odd that this woman of dual American and British citizenship would find herself spending the whole of her adult life here.

When she arrived here in 1961, Crowe was attending a business school in Oxford, England, and came here only to visit her aunt and uncle. The uncle, she said, had retired in Chapel Hill after completing his career with the U.S. State Department.

She ended up meeting and marrying “a native,” she said. And what started out as a rest stop on her journeys turned into a final destination.

Chapel Hill has been home now for the past 42 years.

And no place has she been more at home than at the University, a fact recognized when Crowe was awarded the 2003 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

According to colleagues: “Every unit and program with which she has worked is better off because of her presence.”

“She exudes fairness … kindness, laughter and a genuine love of humanity,” said one.

“She is the warmest, smartest, kindest, most conscientious and most professional staff member I have ever worked with,” said another.

All of this praise has made Crowe painfully uncomfortable, of course.

She is not a diplomat, but there is something to be said for keeping your work behind the scenes, even for people who aren’t.

She began working at the University about the time she got married. Given her business skills, she landed a job running a small department right away.

Over the years, she has built on those skills with various business courses and management training sessions she has completed.

Crowe worked as a research assistant in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She served as assistant managing editor for the “Journal of the American Planning Association” under professors Raymond Burby and Ed Kaiser.

Her movement from job to job was not a career path deliberately charted. She never knew where she wanted to end up or what steps she needed to take to get there. But an opportunity would develop she would hear about and she would know it was right for her.

By the same token, she has known when it has been right to stay. She has worked as a student adviser within the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for the past decade and sees no reason to go anywhere else.

Her diplomat’s lineage may have showed a bit years ago when she helped calm the waters between a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish national who had come here to study as part of the program.

The Cypriot plastered his office space with huge “Free Cyprus” posters that covered the place like wallpaper.

To understand how provocative these posters were, you have to know that Cyprus’ population is roughly 80 percent Greek, 20 percent Turkish.

Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 following a Greek-Cypriot coup to overthrow the president. In 1975, the Turks announced the establishment of the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriots declared their independence, but only Turkey recognizes their self-proclaimed government.

Given this history, it is easy to see why Crowe didn’t see the posters as a way of promoting peace and harmony within the fellows program. In the mind of the Greek Cypriot, that 1974 war was still being waged. But if Crowe had anything to do with it, he would not be fighting it with other students in her program.

“The point of the program is to bring people together to have a dialogue, and I felt these posters were very divisive,” she said.

In the past months, the subject of war and sensitivity about it has once again become a part of campus life. Crowe, in her diplomatic style, tries to sidestep it. She is a public servant, she said, and giving political speeches is not a part of her job description. All she would say about the current state of international affairs is that she does not believe war is the answer to the United States’ current troubles around the world.

As reluctant as Crowe is to talk about herself, she can be even less at ease talking about the lives of family members.

She does not want to come across as boastful, or worse, appear to be laying claim to achievements that do not belong to her.

At the same time, though, she recognized that her curiosity about the world and about differences in people did not spring out of nowhere, either.

Her mother would end up caught in an emotional struggle over Japan, the country she grew to love as a girl and the country the United States would fight during World War II.

Crowe rekindled many of her mother’s torn memories about Japan when she visited Japan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of St. Luke’s International Medical Center, the hospital in Tokyo her grandfather had helped found.

“It was an amazing experience, a very emotional experience,” Crowe said of her visit. “I think what impressed me so much was that, even though my grandfather had been dead since 1935, his life and work was still fresh in the minds of the people there.”

The city Crowe saw at that visit bore no resemblance to the one her mother had known growing up.

Tokyo was firebombed to the ground in much the same way Allied planes had obliterated Dresden, Germany, she said.

In the same way she is reticent talking about or claiming credit for her family’s past achievements, it takes some doing to get her to talk about her children. Their achievements, like her forbearers, belong to them, not her.

Her daughter is a political science professor working at Duke University.

Her son is a professor at Indiana University where he teaches Hungarian studies in the Department of Slavic Languages. That’s always confusing to people, she said, given the fact that Hungary is not a Slavic language.

Asked what role she did have in shaping their future lives, Crowe said only, “I encouraged them to travel. I encouraged them to leave Chapel Hill. I encouraged them to explore the world and do things independently and to follow their dreams.”

In many ways, it is the same kind of advice she doles out to the students who seek her counsel.

She keeps up with events as everybody else does, but unlike everybody else, she has another resource to draw upon to deepen her understanding — the students she sees daily from around the world.

“What I get is a much deeper understanding of what their lives are like, what their views are of current affairs and conflicts and what their attitudes are toward us as a country,” Crowe said.

There are students in the program now from Armenia to Uruguay.

“All of them bring different perspectives, and they share them very openly,” Crowe said. “Anytime we are exposed to a different culture, we broaden our base of understanding.”

It is hard to make blanket statements about what the rest of the world thinks of the United States, she said, but there are a several broad perceptions that people seem to share.

One constant theme is that the United States is a “very consumer-oriented society,” Crowe said. At the same time, most international students see the United States a friendly society as well.

As for Crowe, she has seen enough of the rest of the world to know that she doesn’t have it too bad staying right where she is. She does not like living in big cities, and so Chapel Hill seems to give her the best of both worlds –small town appeal with a rich cultural life that many cities can’t match.

While she has worked at the University for four decades now, she spent many of those years working in part-time positions while rearing her son and daughter.

One reason she stays at her job is to accrue the credit she needs to retire. But it would be a mistake to assume that’s the real reason.

In a different kind of way that she had imagined as a young woman, her work here has taken her on a different kind of journey, one that has enabled her to get to know people from all around the world and to take on and master a variety of tasks that have kept her both challenged and engaged.

“I enjoy working, how about that,” Crowe said. “I enjoy working where I am, and that’s not bad at all.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 22,2003

Comments are closed.