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Last Word: Virginia and I

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich ’75 remembers Professor Virginia Crosby.

pcm-fall2016text39_page_33_image_0001A long, long time ago—way back when Facebook was young—Virginia and I discussed the possibility of becoming “friends” in that newfangled way.

I was ambivalent about this new style of virtual, public, quote-unquote friendship, but I thought she might be eager for the novelty, given that she was the most curious, modern 90-something person who ever lived.

I mean, Virginia’s entire life—for nearly 10 decades—was a testament to the power of humans to evolve.

Think about it: Here’s a girl born, in Oklahoma, before American women have the right to vote. In the 1930s, she lives in Germany, where she joins a dance troupe. After World War II, she lives in Chicago, where she writes radio soap operas. She becomes a professor of French at Pomona College, then a high-ranking college administrator. She raises two kids.

And that’s just the beginning.

After her husband dies, in her so-called retirement, she moves to Paris, alone. She writes novels. She is an early adopter of the Kindle and, when it became trendy in Paris, of boxed wine. She takes Pilates classes before most Americans have ever heard of Pilates.

Thoroughly modern Virginie. Wouldn’t she want to join Facebook?

Non, non et absolument pas.

“I am still unbending in regard to Facebook,” she replied in an email. “Darn it, for me friendship is private and personal—as with lovers, not that that question is an issue at the moment.”

Friendship—the private and personal kind—was Virginia’s gift to me, to many of us in this room, one of the greatest gifts of my lifetime.

When I met her, in 1971, I would never have dreamed that one day I’d call her my friend. Or call her Virginia.

She was Madame Crosby, my middle-age French professor—regal, demanding, with a demeanor as efficient as her matronly bun. In her presence, I always felt I was slouching.

I struggled to make it on time to her 8 a.m. French 51 class. The only things I could say with confidence were “Pardon” and “Répétez, s’il vous plaît.”

Non, pardon, Madame, I have not read that excerpt from “Huis Clos.”

I gave Madame Crosby no reason to think I was a student worth her time, but in my junior year, I signed up for a semester in France. She was my advisor.

As part of my semester abroad schoolwork, I had to keep a journal, in French. It was a black book with unlined pages in which I recorded exciting moments like, “Je suis allée au musée.”

Then the semester ended. Rather than take my prepaid flight home, I decided to stay in France for the summer. But there was a problem.

I had no money. No. Money. And so began a series of adventures that included taking a job on a yacht as a cook for three Frenchmen who, as it turned out, had a very loose translation of “cook.”

Through that summer, I was broke, scared, confused, hungry, elated—and I wrote it all down in my little black journal, which, at the beginning of the new school year, I dutifully brought to Madame Crosby.

I warned her that some of it was very personal, that she might not want to read it all.

A few days later, she summoned me to her office. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she had read it all. In her crisp way, she let me know she wanted to make sure I was OK.

It was a breakthrough moment in my life. For the first time, a professor at Pomona College made me feel noticed and cared for, and that was the beginning of my friendship with Virginia, the beginning of our long conversation.

As you all know, Virginia gave great conversation. It ranged from just the right amount of tart gossip to books (she loved haute literature and trashy mysteries) to politics (Go Democrats) to the meaning of life.

Once, as I was thinking about all the discoveries and inventions she’d lived through—from the electric refrigerator to the Internet—I asked her what she thought the next great frontier would be.

“The brain,” she promptly said. Until we understand the brain, she believed, we won’t understand anything.

As the years wore on, we talked a lot about aging. She didn’t like it. But she faced it with her bracing humor and candor.

One day while I was in her Paris apartment, a young workman was fixing something in the garden out back. He was sweating, no shirt. She watched him. She sighed. Oh, she said, how she missed the days when she didn’t feel invisible to young men.

Virginia maintained close relationships with a number of former students. They adored her; she thrived on them. My brother Chris, who lived near her in Paris, became one of her dearest friends.

I did have to point out to her, however, that in at least one of her novels, the students were vile, conniving creatures. As I recall, she killed off at least one.

Purely a plot device, she assured me.

My classmate, Talitha Arnold, captures part of what endeared Virginia to her students like this: “What she offered us was so much more than French. But through French, she opened a whole world of culture, history and travel that I’d only had a glimpse of as a public school kid from a junior high teacher’s family in Arizona.”

Virginia also gave us a vision of how a woman might live a forceful, independent, fruitful life well into old age. For women my age, she was a role model before we knew the words “role model.”

Yet Virginia fretted that she had led a selfish life. She said that to me more than once. She worried that she hadn’t done much for others, hadn’t sacrificed sufficiently. I assured her that she had done something life-changing for many of us:

She gave us her friendship.

Through her friendship—personal, private friendship—she helped us see more clearly. She inspired, excited, encouraged us, laughed heartily at our jokes. She made us feel valued, seen. She made us more real to ourselves.

Virginia loved attention—“I’m a performer” she once said when I asked her the key to her resilience—but unlike many people who love attention, she also gave it, whole-heartedly. She was curious to the point of hungry. How are you? How’s your family? Are you happy?

She often asked me that—are you happy?—and then we’d have a long discussion on the nature of happiness.

This spring, I was among the many people who paraded to her bedside to say thank you and goodbye. I asked her how she felt about all the well-wishers.

“It’s fine,” she whispered, “as long as they can express sentiment without being sentimental.”

To her, sentimentality seemed like a form of sloppiness, but the truth is, she could be very generous in expressing her feelings—her love, her encouragement—though often with an apology attached: “I fear I’m becoming sentimental in my old age.”

Good, Virginia, good. Go for it.

A final thought.

One day this April, when she was mostly confined to bed, she said something in French as I walked out the door.

Damn, I thought. My French still sucks. I have no idea what she said.

I leaned over her bed. Répétez, s’il vous plaît?

She hoisted an imaginary wine glass and in a raspy voice said, “Vogue la galère!”

Those were the words, she said, that she wanted to “go out” on.

When I got home, I looked it up. It has various definitions. Here’s the one from Merriam-Webster:

Vogue la galere: Let the galley be kept rowing; keep on, whatever may happen.

For almost 100 years, that was Virginia, keeping on whatever happened, encouraging the people who loved her to do the same.

Vogue la galère, ma chère amie.

This is the text of a eulogy delivered by Mary Schmich ’75 at a memorial service for Professor Emerita of French Virginia Crosby. Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.