Virgil Earnest Crowley, a World War II veteran, professor of agricultural economics at Pennsylvania State University and pioneer in the use of applied mathematics for farm management, died Sunday, March 5th in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was 101.
Virgil was born in Elmira, Missouri, on January 3, 1922 the son of Virgil Sam Grant Crowley and Relo Vernal (Searcy) Crowley. Growing up in Polo, he went by his middle name, “Earnest, with an “A”, acting in and stage-managing plays. He graduated from Polo High School in 1939, gave a graduation speech on “Youth and his responsibilities to society,” and entered the University of Missouri on a Sears scholarship, majoring in agriculture.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army upon graduation in June 1943, serving as communications chief for the 273rd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry Division. His regiment broke through the Siegfried Line, freeing thousands of Allied POWs from Colditz Castle, and was the first regiment to meet up with the Russian Army advancing from the east. Most of the soldiers who enlisted with Virgil, (friends from the University of Missouri), were killed in the fierce fighting outside Colditz. Virgil ended the war with the rank of sergeant, two Bronze Stars, and a captured German officer’s Walther pistol and binoculars, which he kept as (Army-sanctioned) souvenirs for many years. He also maintained a horror of what he and his friends had been through, and almost never talked about it.
Back home in 1946, Virgil went back to Mizzou to help teach an on-farm training program for returning veterans. The point was not to teach them how to farm (most of them had that down pat), but to learn how to make money by managing the farm efficiently. After five years, Virgil had helped to train hundreds of future farmers. More importantly, the program showed him his life’s work, and provided a life partner. Virgil and a friend first saw Genevieve Spelman as they drove down Ogden Street in her hometown of Sturgeon, Missouri. She was raking leaves with enthusiasm. Virgil was readily smitten and began courting her. They married in August 1951 and lived in Columbia until 1966.
After a ten-year stint as an agricultural extension agent, Virgil returned to graduate school and obtained his PhD in agricultural economics in 1966. Intrigued by his thesis on the economics of optimal mushroom production, Penn State offered him a teaching job. Virgil and Genevieve were off to State College, their home for the next fifty years.
Virgil taught in (and eventually ran) Penn State’s farm management extension program. He was one of the first to use operations research techniques for farm management, and thousands of Pennsylvania farmers made healthy profits by following Professor Crowley’s advice. He also oversaw Penn State’s Mushroom Test Demonstration facility, developed an expertise in hog and cattle raising, and taught continuing legal education classes. When Virgil retired in 1987, he was especially proud of the recognition he received from the Pennsylvania Bankers Association for coordinating their annual agricultural credit conference.
He was an excellent cook (his chili was especially well-received) and an avid reader, favoring the thrillers of David Balducci, John Connolly and the classic westerns of Louis L’Amour. He developed a passion for Penn State sports teams, was a sharp bridge player, bowled in the 200s, and played golf with Genevieve several times a week. Virgil put his agricultural expertise to work in his garden, testing the soil, choosing plants carefully, and developing a drought and freeze-tolerant lawn. Virgil was also a lifetime member of the Elks and a Master Mason. On February 18, 2023, Grand Master Richard Kaeser, Jr. of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Missouri and the advancing line officers visited Brother Crowley in Virginia to present him with a pin and certificate commemorating his 75-year membership in the organization.
Virgil is survived by the love of his life and wife of 71 years, Genevieve. He is also remembered with love by Genevieve’s family, including her sister Gloria Spelman Nelson (David), and an extended family including the Spelman family of Austin, Texas and the Coyne family of Pylesville, Maryland. Virgil’s greatest concern was Genevieve’s well-being. His family thanks the team at WindsorMeade that cared for him and continues to care for Genevieve.
He will be cremated and his ashes buried at Mt. Horeb Cemetery in Sturgeon, Missouri. A memorial celebrating Virgil’s long and productive life will be held at WindsorMeade in Williamsburg on April 1, 2023. As an expression of sympathy, donations may be mailed to the Centralia Masonic Lodge (P.O. Box 113 Centralia, MO 65240) or to the Friends of Mount Horeb (22101 N. Route “V” Sturgeon, MO 65284). Online condolences may be shared at www.NelsenWilliamsburg.com.