Doris Crowell: The way the village used to be

Long before the Village News, there was Doris Crowell and her undying affection for the Chester community.

In 1954, she was a transplanted southerner returning to Dixie with her late husband, Robert, a chemical engineer, and their two children. Making her home in Chester, Crowell embraced the community like it was her own breathing child. She still lights up when she recalls giving piano and chorus lessons from her home and dissecting the Chester area as an eager reporter for The Chesterfield and Colonial Heights News-Journal.

“There were so few people here that it’s not that I was so exceptional; it was just that there were so few people to do all the things that could be done here,” Crowell said. “It was all very exciting because it was a small community and you knew everybody, so you were part of everything.”

When she took the job at the weekly Chester newspaper in 1956, she hadn’t a degree in journalism – or even a college degree for that matter – but she did have some writing experience; there were also a few college courses under her belt. She had completely immersed herself in the community day after day, attending and hosting various local parties, visiting organizational and club meetings, and one day was asked by the paper’s owner, Charlie King, to join their staff. Crowell had been writing press releases to publicize for various club and community events – like the John Rolfe Players, a local theater group with which she volunteered, and the Kiwanis and Lions Clubs to name a few – when King hired her.

Before covering Chesterfield School Board and Board of Supervisor meetings for the paper, Crowell first wrote a weekly community news column that highlighted bits of gossip surrounding the under-populated community.

She feels Chester has changed so quickly that it’s been hard for her to catch up, to follow all the social news in Chester.

Noticing the town’s transformation as well, Gypsy Cooke, a friend of Crowell and a Chester resident since 1968, remembers when a visit to the local grocery store meant seeing a handful of familiar faces; where now we are lucky to see one, she said.

“It really has grown,” Cooke said. “Chester was just a sleepy little hamlet. In fact, the first time I came here with family, we drove straight through Chester – we missed it completely. It was so small that we didn’t even realize it was Chester.”

Cooke remembers Crowell being “very well-known” in the community when she first moved to the area. Looking back, she commends Crowell for being a very “multi-talented, enthusiastic, and energetic and giving person,” and sharing with others in town what she knew.

The Village of Chester was in fact so small that realtors, whom Crowell grew to know as close friends, would tell her when people would move to the area. Crowell would visit the new-comers’ homes soon after their move – a one-woman “welcome wagon” as she calls herself then – and bring them a copy of The News-Journal; she would then guide them around town pointing out doctors’ offices, restaurants and grocery store locations.

And when folks from big cities would visit town, she would write stories and columns about their lives and their thoughts on visiting Chester. Crowell said these visitors were absolutely “thrilled” when they saw their name in the newspaper because they were never mentioned in the big-city publications.

“I kind of surprise myself when I go back and read stories and columns I wrote over time; I didn’t think I wrote all that well,” she said. “I used to say I wanted to write a book – and then I got too busy. I just like being busy.”

And busy she was.

Crowell, then a young mother, would often spend the darkest hours of the night at The News-Journal office – once located on Old Hundred Road near the volunteer fire house in Chester – preparing the paper to be printed in Hopewell. Throughout her 20-year career as a reporter, Crowell wrote thousands of articles for Petersburg’s Progress-Index and The Hopewell News as a reporter, associate editor, editor and columnist. She said her most favorite kind of writing were assignments in which she could express her opinion.  

But reporting on her beloved community took up only a fraction of her time. During her early days in Chester, Crowell also joined the Chester Garden Club. As a member, she has participated in local and regional beautification projects. From her experience with the club, Crowell later earned accreditation in horticulture and floral design; she eventually taught the two subjects at John Tyler Community College.

“People would ask me why I tried to do everything. And I would say it was because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do – because I loved everything I did,” she said. “I couldn’t give up the choirs that I taught; I couldn’t give up piano. I enjoyed working with the paper, and I enjoyed working the theater … I think the more you do, the longer you live – if you keep an interesting life.”

Crowell has now lived in Chester for exactly 57 years, where she has retired to a quiet neighborhood in town. She celebrated a birthday on Halloween, Monday, but her age – which she still refuses to divulge to anyone other than relatives – is a complete mystery to even her church family.

And though she is now retired, she makes a diligent effort to remain as busy as possible. She continues to be an active member of two local garden clubs, and frequently travels around the state as a judge for floral design competitions.

“Having a chance to try anything you wanted to do – that’s what I liked about Chester,” she said. “I don’t know anywhere else I would have gone where I could have had the opportunity to try my hand at everything I did.”

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