Edith M. Sunderlin

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I wish to honor Edith Sunderlin in the Plaza of Heroines for her outstanding contributions to Iowa State University, to the people of Iowa, and to the field of child development. Edith joined the staff of the Department of Child Development in 1934 and retired in 1967. She was one of the "campus kids" who used central campus as a childhood playground and truly belongs in a central campus Plaza of Heroines.

Edith Marybelle Sunderlin was born in Delmar, Iowa on December 24, 1901. She said she never minded being a "Christmas baby" because she always enjoyed special holiday celebrations as a part of her birthday celebrations! The Sunderlins moved to Ames so Edith's older brother could attend Iowa State University. Several of Edith's childhood friends were children of faculty who lived in the houses on campus, then used as faculty residences. She joined them in play at their homes and on the campus where they roller skated on the walks and enjoyed the natural history museum then housed on the third floor of Morrill Hall. Edith and her two older sisters followed their brother's lead and also attended ISU. Howard was a member of the class of 1916 and sisters Gertrude and Olive were in the class of 1919. Edith followed with a bachelor's degree in Home Economics in 1924.

Following her student years at ISU, Edith taught home economics in Iowa schools. She completed a master's degree at the University of Iowa in 1931 and worked in one of the early child care centers in Cedar Rapids. Jobs were nearly impossible to find in the 1930's and Edith obtained an "unpaid experience" position at Purdue University where she had further opportunity to work with leaders in the rather new field of child development.

When Edith returned to ISU in 1934, she was a teacher in the laboratory nursery school established ten years before in her senior year. Child Development had become a separate department in Home Economics at ISU in 1930, and like all departments participated in college radio programs to serve the people of Iowa. One day when Edith was to appear on Martha Duncan's radio program, she had to leave nursery school to hurry over to the studio and in a last-minute inspiration took along a children's book to read on the air.

That impromptu reading led to Edith's most famous role as the Storybook Lady on WOI Radio. At first Edith's readings were popular on Martha Duncan's show and by request became quite regular. By 1939, Edith had her own Storybook Hour that was aired three times per week and in 1942, the program became a daily feature on WOI. Eventually the readings were recorded so they could be used and reused without Edith leaving the children she was teaching to rush to the studio to read to those of us at home. Yes, I was one of those Iowa children who regularly listened to The Storybook Lady. Although the radio work made Edith most famous in Iowa, she made many, many, other professional contributions.

As the Department of Child Development grew with more students and additional courses added, Edith eventually taught most of them and she originated at least one course. Edith tells the story that faculty thought their students needed to know more about children's books and they approached the Department of English about developing a course in children's literature. Edith's version of the story was that the English faculty said that of course there were many children's books but we all know those books are not really literature! With the approval of the English Department Edith developed the course in children's literature still in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies today.

Edith's tenure with the Department of Child Development was marked with many moves and developments in the laboratory as well as the department. The nursery school had begun in a temporary building made from a World War I barracks building which stood in the vicinity of today's LeBaron Hall. By the time Edith arrived, the nursery school occupied a remodeled Horticulture barn located about where today's Metals Development Building stands. Faculty reported that on rainy days the barn odors from an earlier time were prevalent! A former on-campus faculty home became a nursery school annex and in 1948 the nursery school and the department moved again to a former World War II barracks building located at the site of Atanasoff Hall. Edith had become director of the nursery school laboratories and by 1956 more office space was needed. Faculty offices were moved to the third floor of Morrill Hall where Edith had known the space as the campus museum!

By 1962 the department was ready for another move. This time the new location was on the east side of the campus in a remodeled home management house with a new laboratory school of three classrooms built on the west side. Kindergarten was added as one of the laboratories and elementary education became part of the curriculum and an available major for students.

Edith’s professional focus remained with the youngest children. The National Association for Nursery Education was a national professional organization with 1926 beginnings. Edith was elected Secretary-Treasurer in 1946 and was a member of the governing board of the organization in the 1950’s. She was also one of the founding members of the Iowa Association for Nursery Education. Both organizations are huge and active professional groups today known as the National and Iowa Associations for the Education of Young Children or NAEYC and IAEYC.

National movements affected child development and Edith’s career. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Emergency Nursery Schools were organized to give employment to unemployed teachers, trained to work with older children. “Crash courses” on the development of young children were needed. The Child Development Department and Edith responded to meet the need in the 1930’s. During the World War II year, Edith was involved with a day care program in Ames operated with funds from the Lanham Act. She tells about faculty working very hard at cleaning and painting a very dirty old house to get ready for the program. Then, in those days of gas rationing, Edith rode her bicycle to provide supervision. She turned down an opportunity to join other nationally known professional developing the later famous Kaiser Shipyard Child Care Programs. In the post World War II days, Edith and the Child Development Department worked with the Pammel Court Nursery School which served 120 children.

My student days at ISU were 1955-1959 and Edith Sunderlin was then teaching several of the courses for child development majors. I remember her as an instructor in the children’s literature, activities and materials, and a course immediately preceding student teaching. I was overcome with amazement when I discovered she was Storybook Lady I had known as a preschool child listening to radio! She worked for board experiences for students and student teaching including a day in each of two different off-campus settings. Most of those placements were in Des Moines and in the days when few students, or at least few female students, had cars, we took the bus to Des Moines and Edith Sunderlin came to get us to return us to Ames. I found out years later that Edith did all that transporting at personal expense with no departmental reimbursement. She simply did what was needed to get students the additional experience.

On one of those return trips from Des Moines, Edith showed me one of the many times when she could understand the parent point-of-view. Even in the late 1950’s, polio was still a fearful fact of life. A vaccine had been developed but was not yet widely used and several children at Blank Memorial hospital where I had spent the day were in iron lungs. Two of the children were from the same family and Edith was distressed that the medical staff had been really scolding the young parents for not having their children immunized. Edith’s sympathies were with the parents and she said they were doing the best they could, doing what they thought right for their children, and that the scolding by professionals at this point surely served no constructive purpose when the parents needed support.

When I returned to Iowa State in 1964 to be a head teacher in the laboratory nursery school, Edith was then teaching an undergraduate course entitled Home-School Relations. With Edith’s leadership, Iowa State had long included course work aimed at working with parents as well as children. With her encouragement, I wrote my first published article reporting some of the ways we were currently working with parents in our laboratory school. Edith Sunderlin was a professional leader and a role model for many, many students and staff members in her thirty-three year career teaching at Iowa State University.

After retirement, Edith said she would take time to be an active member of her community and was busy with work in her church, Collegiate Presbyterian Church, and several community organization. For many years she delivered meals-on-wheels to fellow senior citizens. She remained a loyal ISU graduate supporting athletic teams with her presence for many years and participating actively in her class reunions. Edith comes to be a role model for constructive again and an inspiration to many. Writing about Edith M. Sunderlin has been an honor for me.

Kathryn Madera Miller
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
May, 1995