Looking at Luella Helen Crow, UO College of Education class of 1952, you might not imagine a world traveler. Her 90 years have deepened her wrinkles, but when she starts to recall them aloud, the decades ebb away and her voice rings like a bell. Suddenly she is a freshly minted teacher in her early twenties, determined to learn how far her education could take her. During a time when women had few career options and rigid expectations, she was eager to break the constraints of an ordinary life, and succeeded on a grand scale, teaching, traveling and experiencing the world in ways no classroom could provide.
Early life in Oregon
"Cold" and "unpleasant" are the words Luella uses to describe her childhood, growing up on a farm in the Flournoy Valley, about 13 miles West of Roseburg, Oregon. She and her seven siblings along with their mother and father struggled through the Great Depression, which ripped away many rural farmers' hopes and dreams.
"He was doing real well, and he had a lot of money in the Umpqua Bank,” Luella said of her father. “Then in 1928 or '29, the banks just failed and he lost everything he had. It was really hard. We just ate what we had, prunes, beans. We could always raise dry beans; we used those all winter long."
Out of her struggles arose two goals: "Live where it's warm” and “see the world.” She satisfied the first in 1952 when she moved to Los Angeles immediately after earning her UO education degree and began teaching in a secondary school. It took her nearly a decade to graduate, owing to the many jobs she worked each time she ran out of money. She
- cleaned lights at a Boeing aircraft factory in Seattle;
- worked as a soda jerk in downtown Eugene;
- waited the Westfir Lumber Company mess hall near Oakridge, Oregon;
- processed recruits from the southeastern United States for work at the Oregon Shipbuilding Company in Portland;
- taught at myriad Oregon secondary schools using an emergency license granted by the state during World War II;
- and taught math and science at an experimental high school in Oakland, Oregon.
“I just plugged along, doing this and that,” she said of her efforts. “No one had money to help me; I had to do that myself. [Earning a degree] was my goal, so it didn’t matter what the bumps were that came along; I had to go over it and keep going."
L.A. was merely a launchpad for Luella. In a time when few Oregonians with a rural upbringing ventured far from home, her wanderlust drove her forward. It led her to the desert sands of the Middle East, on adventures into Saudi Arabian culture, and into African lands.
By chance, a teacher friend introduced Luella to a man who was vacationing in Los Angeles from his engineering work in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. His tales of the distant, exotic location captivated her. She could scarcely imagine such a life, and caught herself dreaming out loud.
"Boy, I'd love to go there and teach," she said.
"Well, you can!" the man said, encouraging her.
"He didn't know anything about it, but that's what he said," Luella recalled decades later. That's all she needed.
She sent her application to the Arabian American Oil Company and was offered a job so quickly that the opportunity jeopardized her long-term status as a teacher in California. In order to take the job abroad, Luella was forced to cut out of her teaching arrangement in L.A. early. An administrator threatened to withhold Luella’s lifetime teaching credential, which she had been working to earn. Undeterred, she chose a new life full of unknown adventures over the promise of stability and security as a teacher in California. She stepped on a plane, and she didn’t look back. The administrator did issue Luella the credential after she moved to Saudi Arabia, though neither of them knew at the time she would never need it.
Over the next 30 years, Luella taught math, science and physical education to children of Aramco workers that lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia while satiating her wanderlust at every opportunity. Her pupils were mostly American when she began teaching in the 1950s, and by the time she left, decades later, her students were from 40 different countries. Any chance she had, she traveled, sometimes with friends with whom she worked. She expressed gratitude for the flexibility of her employers.
“I did lots of traveling because the company was really good to me,” She said. "If I ever wanted to go on a trip, they would wiggle things around so I had a chance to go.”
She traveled to Cairo, Egypt, Jerusalem, Israel, Tehran, Iran, Nairobi, Kenya, Bahrain, Greece and Iraq. In between her distant travels, she often visited Beirut, Lebanon, because the flight from her home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, was short and cheap.
Luella wistfully recalls Beirut before the civil war—which she barely managed to escape in April 1975 after initially being trapped in the unstable country. “It’s the only place in the world I’ve ever been homesick for,” she said, dreamily drifting through her memories of the once-popular tourist destination on the Mediterranean Sea.
"I've probably been around the world 10 or 11 times, not knowing how to count it because I'd leave from Saudi Arabia and end up some place else,” she said.
Saudi Arabia was then, and still is a misogynistic place, but that didn’t stop her.
"I was very much interested in the local culture,” Luella said. “That motivated me to learn the local Arabic dialect so I could go out into the villages and really learn and see how they lived. That really payed big dividends for me, because that satisfied my needs to find out what the Saudi was really like and what kind of life they really live. It's a very poor, unpleasant life that we don't really recognize.”
Luella brought back with her to the United States a perspective that was shaped by her decades of experience with Saudi people.
"Understand that the Saudi is really a wonderful person,” she said. “They're not aggressive, and they're not mean. They're just not all the things that you hear about in the news that you're exposed to here in the United States."
Luella shares that perspective with people she meets here in Eugene, Oregon, of which she has an expansive view from her downtown apartment. She moved several years ago from San Diego, where she retired after returning from Saudi Arabia in 1984. Occasionally, she makes it to the University of Oregon campus.
“I love the trees!” Crow said, excitedly. "I can just walk around and enjoy those trees. They have very good arborists!”
She also loves spending time in the Knight library.
"I'll be walking around, and I'll look and there will be 20 or 30 people—not a sound; nobody's making a sound,” Luella said, impressed. She likes to study maps and government documents and spends time getting especially intimate with a “great big" map of Oregon. Feeling brazen in the library basement, she stretches her old limbs out across the large table upon which the map sits to touch places that pique her interest; the pioneering Oregonian spirit is still compelling her to travel, if only through her fingertips.