Gertrude E. Byrnes

Honored by:Betty B. Consbruck and Florence B. Hall
Brick location:C:16  map

Gertrude Elizabeth Mitchell Byrnes (1891-1983), a product of a generation holding little regard for education for women, was a staunch advocate for higher education for both sexes. Our mother's first questions when Dad considered moving to a different farming locale (a frequent choice) was "how far is the school and is it a good one?" While denied a high school education since she was needed at home to assist her ailing mother care for a large family, she possessed a keen inquiring mind. Basic skills such as arithmetic, reading, and spelling were easy for her. She never learned to drive an automobile but mastered the horse and buggy techniques of transportation of her day. No one could out-bake or out-cook her--Dad always joked it was her devils food cake that 'caught' him.

Born in western Iowa, she spent her life in Iowa with the exception of a brief stay in Colorado, a move made for health reasons. She put homemaking skills to good use when we moved from northern Iowa to Ames to enable our older brother to enroll at Iowa State. Leaving the farm and moving to town meant taking in college students as roomers and sometimes boarders as well. We didn't keep a log, but the young men she shepherded through college surely topped 200. Some spent their entire college days at our house. Many returned through the years to introduce wives and children. It was more than a room for a student, it was a home. Many a night during exams she put substantial snacks and hot tea, coffee, or chocolate on the kitchen table for the brain-weary youngsters. The cookie jar was always full. She encouraged and counseled, cheered when they succeeded, and commiserated with and consoled when they stumbled. She would say "we'll make it together". She mothered as well as housed them, and was especially attracted to graduate students. In addition, she was a popular cook at many fraternities and sororities, although she always refused offers to make her "head cook".

Never losing sight of her original goal of educating her family, all four of us received college educations--three at Iowa State, one at State Teachers. When she died at age 91 she was the oldest member of her church St. Thomas Catholic, just off campus, a parish she and Dad helped establish. If she learned that a meal ticket at the Memorial Union had been used up by one of student roomers and they had no more money, she would invite him down to eat dinner, calling the offering "just leftovers" to avoid his embarrassment.

During the depression years money was very scarce. She had to feed a family of 6 plus her two brothers who lived with us most of the time. She had a unique knack of stretching a 25 cent pound of hamburger to feed everyone. She also baked and sold cakes and breads and sold fresh eggs and home-churned butter to help out. After World War II housing was scarce for returning GI students. She converted the basement into an apartment for a veteran and his wife so that he could attend college. This created many inconveniences for her, but her goal was to keep him in school. Many of her graduate students were from foreign countries and unable to visit home. She did many things for them to help ease their loneliness.

Her son Ray was an outstanding athelete in high school. This sparked her interest in sports. Until she was hospitalized at 91, she watched the basketball and football games of ISU and proudly reported the results and score to anyone of us who called home that weekend. She had "adopted" ISU as her own.

Above all, the most important contribution she made was to instill in her four children and the 200 plus student roomers,"her boys",  the unique value of a higher education and strong moral values. The pleasure of friendships and sharing were taught by her constant example.

-By Florence B. Hall