At 93, Larry Crow is keeping Nardin's history alive
One man’s college Spanish degree was the unlikely catalyst for one of Kay County’s largest annual historical celebrations.
While working for the International Business Machine corporation in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1970s, northern Oklahoma native Larry Crow used his Spanish-speaking skills to bring together businessmen to support the Service, Education and Re-training organization, which aims to help Hispanic workers get prepared for jobs.
Crow’s group, “Amigos de SER,” didn’t just bolster that organization’s cause. It inspired him to create a team of volunteers that has honored Nardin’s history for more than four decades.
“If it hadn’t been for Amigos de SER, there’d be no Friends of Nardin,” Crow said. “I got the idea that, if we could help SER that way, why couldn’t we help my hometown?”
For 46 years, that’s what Crow and the Friends of Nardin organization has set out to do each Memorial Day. This year’s Nardin Heritage Day celebration – complete with a parade, Old West gunfight, cake-walk and more – takes place Saturday in the western Kay County town south of State Highway 11.
RAISED ON HARD TIMES
Crow, 93, was born in 1930 during the Great Depression. He spent his early years on a farm his family operated in Grant County.
“It was tough compared to today,” Crow said. “We had no electricity, no radio, no refrigerator, coal oil lamps, no telephone for a while. Later, Dad parked the car by the living room window and ran wires in from the car battery so we could run the radio.”
Families raised their own food, came together to make music in their homes and helped neighbors around their farms, Crow said. In spite of the hardships, his family never went hungry.
“We didn’t know we were poor,” he said with a laugh.
Crow and his family moved to nearby Nardin after his father got a job at the Blackwell Zinc Co., one of the largest zinc and lead smelters in the world. Crow attended middle school in Nardin and high school in Blackwell, graduating in 1947.
That summer, he hired on with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway as a track worker. He and five other men maintained the rail line from Blackwell to Deer Creek, putting in long days of repairing rail and cutting down weeds using shovels.
“I think that made me decide I wanted to get an education,” Crow said with a laugh. “I wanted to work inside.”
IN THE NAVY
Later that year, Crow’s brother persuaded him to join the U.S. Navy with him. Crow’s wish to work indoors was granted – somewhat. He was deployed to a U.S. Navy base in Hawaii and took his first trip on a Navy ship.
“I got seasick, and I wasn’t even out of sight of San Francisco,” he said.
The Navy taught Crow how to use a radio, type and interpret Morse code, giving him a classified job assignment and top-secret clearance. He worked to intercept and decode Russian-language broadcasts, sending the information to the National Security Administration.
Crow didn’t spend all of his Naval career in sunny, warm Hawaii, though. He experienced the polar opposite when he was stationed in Alaska for nine months.
“We’d camp out all night in the winter in preparation in case we were attacked by the Russians or North Koreans,” Crow said. “We had to sleep all night with just a fire. It was very cold. I don’t
remember the temperatures. We wore parkas and all that stuff. Being a young guy, you can take a lot. Now, I couldn’t do it.”
TRENDS AND TECHNOLOGY
After leaving the Navy, Crow worked at the Ponca City Refinery for several months as a mail carrier and clerk. That’s where he observed a trend: College degrees were becoming more important. He enrolled at Northern Oklahoma Junior College and eventually transferred to the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
“I majored in Spanish because my grandfather fought in the Spanish-American War, and that got me the interest in Mexico and Latin America,” Crow said.
Crow graduated in 1956 and came back to Ponca City, where he worked for about a year. One day, he picked up a copy of the Wichita Eagle and read a classified advertisement that changed his life: IBM was seeking to hire an office management trainee.
“I answered that ad, got an interview, got the job, and I never missed a day’s work,” Crow said. “We moved over the weekend, and I started at IBM that Monday.”
Crow had several management positions within the company, working in Wichita, Kansas City and Huntington, West Virginia. Most of his time was in Wichita, allowing him to be closer to his family – and get involved with the community.
Crow hired a Hispanic woman while he was a manager at IBM, and he soon learned about the SER Corporation, he said. Finally, his Spanish degree came in handy. He created Amigos de SER and drew in leaders from some of the city’s biggest businesses, including major aircraft manufacturers.
“Our mission was to do whatever we could to help SER – if we could loan them or give them used furniture, stuff like that,” Crow said. “I worked at that while I was still administration manager, and we put on a celebrity golf tournament to raise money for college tuition for Hispanics.”
When Crow’s workday was over, he could be found playing the tenor saxophone in the Quarter Notes band at clubs in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas.
Playing in the band wasn’t just fun for Crow. He often had to take the microphone and speak to the audience, helping him overcome his longtime fear of public speaking, he said.
“I was so shy as a kid. I could not get up and talk at all,” Crow said. “Talking on the bandstand, and as an IBM manager, you learn to speak before a group. That was good for me. It brought me out a lot.
“When I think back, the way I was on the … farm and where I am today, I think, ‘My goodness, is that the same guy?’”
When he wasn’t playing music, he was dancing to it. Donning long hair and bell-bottom jeans, Crow learned to dance disco, cha-cha, rumba, waltz and more while living in Wichita.
“I’ve been a dancer ever since,” Crow said. “I went from a non-dancer to a pretty good dancer.”
As IBM began cutting back its staffing levels in 1990, Crow took an early retirement and returned to Nardin, where he remodeled his family’s old home. He took on a new, albeit unofficial, job: town historian.
FIRST DRAFT OF HISTORY
Crow started the Friends of Nardin organization in 1977, and after his retirement, he ramped up his efforts to record town history.
He spent roughly 25 years combing through newspaper archives and interviewing elderly residents to compile an extensive history of Nardin. He spent about a year writing the information, publishing a two-part book series, “Nardin, I Knew You When.” Copies of the book are at local libraries.
“I never thought I could do it,” he said. “It turned out better than I thought. I wanted to record the stories of the old timers. They’re lost in a generation.”
Crow has compiled hundreds of newspaper clippings, photographs and other artifacts in an old church in Nardin, dubbed the “Heritage House.” The building is open as part of the annual celebration.
These days, Crow still plans the festivities and oversees construction on Main Street. The Friends of Nardin organization is building and continues to maintain a general store, blacksmith shop and other structures used as part of the annual celebration, which draws in hundreds of visitors and continues to grow, Crow said.
While part of his mission is to keep Nardin’s history alive, he also enjoys putting a smile on people’s faces, he said.
“I love what I’m doing with Friends of Nardin,” Crow said. “I’m doing it mostly for the community because we’re making such tremendous memories for the kids.”
It all started with a Spanish degree.
“It’s almost like God was laying this out as I went, and the end result is Friends of Nardin,” Crow said. “That’s kind of the way I feel.”
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