Ethel B. Overholt Byrnes

Honored by:Francis Byrnes
Brick location:F:27  map

Wherever she went, Ethel made the world more beautiful; inspired and encouraged her family, friends, and community; and left behind evidence of her many contributions, as well as volumes of great memories, plus two sons and a daughter: Kerry (PhD sociology/economics Iowa State), Kevin (M.A. geography/urban planning Michigan State), and Kathryn (M.A. medical geography University of North Carolina).

Born June 21, 1918 at Spirit Lake, Iowa, the youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. I. Overholt. She came to Iowa State from Indianola, where after high school she was a reporter on the local newspaper. She received a B.S. in nutrition and technical journalism at Iowa State December 1941. Her campus activities included Kappa Delta; Theta Sigma Phi (women's journalism fraternity); secretary Home Economics Council; editor Freshman Handbook; editor Green Gander; women's editor Iowa State Daily Student; and member Iowa State Daily Student Publication Board.

Married to Francis C. Byrnes (FCB--who was graduated from Iowa State in technical journalism in 1938) January 8, 1942 in St. Cecelia's Church, Ames. She accompanied him to Washington D.C. where he entered military service in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. In February 1943 they moved to Dayton, Ohio where FCB later was transferred to the U.S. Air Force. After separation from military service as a lieutenant colonel in mid-1946, he continued in the same Air Force position as a civilian until October 1948 when he joined the Ohio State University staff at Columbus.

In Columbus, Ethel combined post-war homemaking with the pursuit of professional and civic interests. She served a year as president of the Theta Sigma Phi professional chapter and helped manage the Matrix Table, a recognition each year for an outstanding national woman journalist. As a member of the Children's Conservation League, she organized a successful campaign to persuade local merchants to withhold Christmas and Santa Claus advertising on radio and TV until after Thanksgiving. She wrote a training manual on basic cooking for use in the state 4-H program, and as part of Ohio's sesquicentennial celebration she organized a statewide collection and compilation of recipes women used in the 1800s.

After moving to East Lansing, MI in 1953, she continued Theta Sigma Phi activities, worked with the Cub and Boy Scout programs, and when FCB went on a part-time employment basis to accelerate his academic progress, she was employed by Michigan State University to organize the office for and provide secretarial and general support to the university's first-named distinguished professor Russell Nye, eminent humanist and professor of English. With family interests stimulated by a 3-month assignment in Europe in 1955 and constant interaction with international students on the campus (including bringing a young Vietnamese mother and her infant son into the Byrnes home for 3 months), the family prepared for an eventual international assignment.

Throughout the doctoral program, which examined how Americans professionals coped with the challenges and frustrations of work abroad, Ethel abstracted literature, edited drafts of dissertation chapters, raised penetrating questions, and attended FCB's classes to take notes when he was away. Upon completion of the degree program, FCB was employed by the Rockefeller Foundation with assignment to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines beginning in March 1963. In the Los Banos housing community of some 20 scientists and their families from 12 countries, Ethel stimulated communication among the wives by organizing weekly classes in which each woman demonstrated to the others how to prepare a favorite dish of her country. She also learned about how special communication problems arise in situations where English is a second language for most of those involved. For example, at a social event, Ethel remarked that Chinese red was one of her favorite colors; a woman from Taiwan immediately challenged her on why she was in favor of the Red Chinese.

With a move in late 1967 to Cali, Colombia where FCB would help plan, build, and staff the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical Center (CIAT), she responded to exciting opportunities to work with people, plants, and local art. She had a major landscaping role in the design, planning, and planting of the trees, shrubs, flowers, and lighting of the 50-acre CIAT campus. As buildings were completed, she complimented the interior decoration plans for furnishing with imported desks, tables, and chairs by identifying and acquiring paintings, artifacts, and materials typical of the countries served by the center. She also worked with consultants on the design and selection of kitchen dining and housing facilities and equipment for this major research training and conference center.