By Christie Spear
If you made it to your 100th birthday, what kind of cake would you want at your party? Chocolate? Vanilla? With sprinkles? You could choose whatever you’d like. After all, it’s your birthday, you’re one hundred years old, and you deserve to pick your favorite kind of cake. Well, Norva (Bassage ’38) Crosby did not celebrate her 100th birthday with cake. Her favorite dessert is apple pie with ice cream. When asked, “What kind of birthday cake do you want?” she laughed and said, “Apple pie! Why not?”
As birthday parties go, this was a grand one. Over 100 loved ones, guests and family members from far-flung places gathered to celebrate Norva Crosby’s life journey. Norva, whose tiny centenarian body houses a still-sharp mind and lively spirit, exclaims in playful denial, “All these people! They sent me cards early! I can’t be one hundred yet!”
But one hundred, she is.
Norva was born on the 10th day of October in 1915 on a farm outside of Corning, New York. Back then, folks still commonly traveled on foot or by horse-drawn buggy or winter sleigh. The one-millionth Ford car would roll off the assembly line in Detroit one month later. A quart of milk set you back nine cents and was delivered in glass bottles to your doorstep—if you didn’t have a milk cow. Women could not vote. Willard J. Houghton, farmer-turned-founder of Houghton College (1883), had recently left behind that young institution overlooking the Genesee River Valley. It was now headed by its Harvard-educated president, James S. Luckey.
After graduating high school with high honors, Norva enrolled at Houghton College in the autumn of 1934 along with 132 men and 154 other women (The Great Depression notwithstanding). Norva and her widowed mother were driven across Western New York State in a Model A Ford by kind neighbors from Corning. Ora Bassage, Norva’s mother, took up employment in the Houghton College kitchen to support Norva’s education. “Aunt Ora” was given a room in Gaoyadeo Hall as part of her room and board and for the convenience of having close proximity to the kitchen at all hours of the day and night.
“I enjoyed college right from the very beginning,” says Norva, “and the person that I married happened to be the first person that I met on campus.” On Sunday morning before registration day, Robert Crosby ’38 noticed a girl sitting in front of him in church. That afternoon, he met Norva, and a friendship began. “I lived in Gaoyadeo Hall which overlooked a cabin out back where Bob and his sister lived. Bob and I had a flashlight code from our windows for communicating,” she confesses.
Back in the days before people swiped thumbs across personal devices to see who is doing what, local newspapers printed everybody’s business in the society pages. During Norva’s time at Houghton College, Corning’s The Evening Leader occasionally had announcements such as “Miss Bassage Attains Highest Honors at Houghton College” and “Miss Norva Bassage resumes her studies at Houghton College after spending the weekend with friends.” Norva studied languages at Houghton and also participated in the chapel choir and expression club.
After their Houghton graduation, Norva taught Latin and French for two years, and Robert began his pastorate in a church outside of Syracuse. Despite the stamp “Marriage automatically makes this contract void” on her teaching contract, Norva married Robert in 1940. In their wedding photo, they look young and optimistic with Robert wearing a white flower in his lapel and Norva in a high-necked satin dress, her round face framed by a delicate pair of eyeglasses.
In July of 1942, they left upstate New York to go as pioneer missionaries to Colombia, South America, with their six-month-old daughter, Priscilla, in tow. They lived high in the Andes Mountains where bitter violence and demonstrations against Protestantism were common. Daughter Priscilla (Crosby ’63) Piersma relates that, although hardships were many, “we kids felt secure in our family.” She recalls their eating a meal in their newly-erected mud hut. The mud walls had not cured yet and were “literally alive, crawling with little worms.” Robert, Norva, and their three children ate under the tablecloth to keep the critters from dropping on them or their food. “Mom & Dad just made a joking game out of it. It wasn’t so bad.”
This same cheerful grit and drive aided Norva during the Crosbys’ next mission assignment in the tropical climate of Puerto Rico. There, they pioneered several new churches. In 1955, Norva founded a PK-12 school from the ground up. The Wesleyan Academy of Puerto Rico is a bilingual, Christian college preparatory school celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
In the 1960s, the Crosbys returned to Colombia for another term and were overjoyed to see dramatic growth and openness to the gospel there. Later, after some interim years of teaching Spanish at Houghton College, they returned to Puerto Rico for another term. When they finally retired in Brooksville, Florida, Norva taught high school Spanish, did translation work for various Christian publications, and volunteered at the hospital and church.
During retirement, the Crosbys served volunteer terms in Mexico teaching at a Wesleyan Bible School. Priscilla recalls a visit with daughter Joy (Piersma ’95) Hinterkopf to her parents there. They took a bus to a village bull fight; they stopped at a “campesino” roadside food stand and ate fried ants and grasshoppers. “Mom enjoyed these with delight.”
Since Robert’s passing in 2006, Norva has lived with Priscilla and her husband Bernie Piersma (HC retired faculty 1972–04) near Brooksville, Florida. Norva’s children and grandchildren are spread from Alaska and the west coast to Western New York. When asked what it feels like to be 100 years old, Norva shrugs it off: “It’s not much different than being 99 or 98 or 97…. It’s just a number on a calendar.” Her only complaints (said with a chuckle) are, “I can’t hear everything, and I forget things. Really, am I 100?”
In Philippians 4:12, Paul writes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Whether she was facing violent attacks in Colombia, eating under a tablecloth in a mud hut, sampling fried ants and grasshoppers from a roadside food stand in Mexico, or learning to live within a body that is a fading earthly tent at 100 years old, Norva sees and reflects the bright side of every situation. Her lifelong “yes” to the Lord many times, in many ways, for 100 years, has produced lasting fruit for God’s kingdom.
Not everyone could come to the party this October to celebrate Norva’s legacy. With the help of modern technology, hundreds of friends from Puerto Rico sent birthday greetings. One video clip shows a group of people wearing party hats, gathered around a hot pink cake with a “100” candle on top. They sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and then give Norva a message: “We will never forget you; you are always with us.”
Christie Spear is a freelance writer and the wife of Ryan Spear ’07, who is a fourth-generation Houghton graduate and Director of Admission at Houghton College. Christie and Ryan are raising two sons in the nearby village of Fillmore, New York.