Making connections

Behind the scenes, Ida Early keeps the University running smoothly

Ida H. Early would tease Harriet K. Switzer, Ph.D, former secretary to the Board of Trustees.

“I used to tell her, if you ever retire, I want your job,” Ida says. “It’s the best job at the University.”

Ida H. Early, secretary to the Board of Trustees, meets with her staff, Administrative Coordinators Sharon Britt (left) and Jane Stone, in her office in Brookings Hall. “Ida Early is a highly conscientious, knowledgeable and dedicated person who provides careful and thoughtful support to both the trustees of Washington University and me,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “She is a great communicator and works effectively with all University constituencies.

But after Switzer announced in 2006 that she planned to retire, Ida, then senior associate director of Schools Alumni & Development Programs, hesitated before applying. First, there was the challenge of following one of WUSTL’s most beloved women — Switzer, who had served as secretary since 1981. And while she coveted the position, she knew its importance and the serious commitment it would require.

“The secretary to the board is the chief deputy to the Chancellor for management of the board and the connector between the board and the administration,” she says. “The secretary also assists the various board committees, which make decisions about University policies and tenure. The job has to be taken seriously because what the board and committees do affects everyone at the University.”

In the end, Ida didn’t let a few nerves keep her from her dream job. She became secretary July 1, 2007.

It was an easy choice, as Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says she’s perfect for the job.

“Ida Early is a highly conscientious, knowledgeable and dedicated person who provides careful and thoughtful support to both the trustees of Washington University and me,” Wrighton says. “She is a great communicator and works effectively with all University constituencies.

“Although she is relatively new to her current job, Ida has enjoyed a distinguished history of service to Washington University spanning nearly three decades, and I am most grateful to have her as a part of our leadership team,” he says.

And she is grateful, too. “I love my job,” she says. “Love it, love it, love it.”

Pickles and pecans

Ida, born in Dallas, Texas, says her favorite pastime as a child was riding her bike and eating the neighborhood delicacy.

Ida H. Early and her husband, Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.

“I would park my bike, sit on the front steps and eat sour pickles on peppermint sticks,” she says.

Sour pickles and peppermint? “I guess it’s a Texas thing,” she laughs. “I don’t eat them anymore.”

As a senior in high school, Ida applied to two colleges — the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University — and was accepted by both. After her friend Joan announced she would attend Penn, Ida decided she would, too.

As a freshman at Penn, Ida endured an unenviable work-study position in the financial aid office, where there was “no talking, no breaks — just filing,” she says. During her sophomore, junior and senior years, she worked in the office of the vice provost for student life.

“That was a position where I could actually use my brain,” she says. “Whatever the vice provost was working on, he always had components that required a student to do some research or talk to faculty members. Ever since then, I’ve always worked at a university in an administrative setting.”

While walking the office poodle, Brain, during her senior year, Ida met her husband, Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., then a law student at Penn. He also had been a Penn undergraduate, just one year ahead of Ida, and eventually would become the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at WUSTL.

“Brain was pulling me along, and we just passed each other,” Ida says. “We exchanged a friendly greeting. I had seen him around but didn’t really know him.”

After graduating a semester ahead of schedule, Ida was hired in the vice provost’s office, and she met Gerald again on a bus. They started talking, and he asked her to lunch. She suggested Al’s Penn House, a greasy-spoon diner. Ida ordered a BLT, but Gerald pulled out a brown paper bag of pecans. He was a vegetarian.

“He was a little different, and I was intrigued by him,” Ida says. “He had been a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian campus newspaper as an undergrad and always stirred a lot of controversy. Working at the vice provost’s office, I had access to the paper’s archives, so I got all his old articles and read them.

“I thought he was the greatest writer I had ever read,” she says. “Still do.”

WUSTL, again and again

The Earlys were married in August 1977. By then, Gerald, despite earning excellent grades, decided to leave law school and instead pursue a graduate degree in English. Ida applied to graduate programs in educational administration. Both were awarded fellowships to Cornell University.

While Gerald loved his program at Cornell, Ida realized that hers wasn’t the right fit. She took a job on campus in the Africana Studies and Research Center and helped raise the couple’s daughters, Linnet and Rosalind.

In 1982, Gerald was offered a faculty position at WUSTL. He accepted, and Ida took an administrative assistant position in the Olin Business School. She quickly moved up to director of special projects, information and foundations for Robert L. Virgil, Ph.D., then dean.

“Ida became one of my most trusted colleagues,” says Virgil, dean emeritus and trustee emeritus. “She is highly intelligent and well versed in a wide range of subjects. She has good judgment, is very articulate and has a sparkling personality.”

While at the business school, Ida enjoyed working on many projects related to development. When a development position opened in art, she applied and was hired.

Ida was the alumni and development director for the old Gallery of Art and the School of Art until 1996, when she began a two-year leave to serve as president of the Junior League of St. Louis, an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism and improving the community.

“Being elected president was quite an honor,” says Ida, who had been a member since 1987 and was the St. Louis League’s first African-American president.

She returned to WUSTL in 1998 to direct the annual fund and left again in 2001 to accompany Gerald on sabbatical at the National Humanities Center in Durham, N.C. The Duke University Parents’ Program was without a leader, so Ida took over while a national search was conducted.

The Earlys returned to WUSTL in 2002, and Ida went back to work as senior associate director of development. Later, she served concurrently as interim director of development for the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

“I saw alumni and volunteers take the mission of University as their own, and it was really rewarding,” Ida says of her time in development. “I don’t want to say it was easy, but the students and faculty are wonderful and the need is so apparent that it makes an excellent case.”

Attentive, thoughtful

Now, as secretary to the board, Ida says the most challenging part of her job is keeping up with it.

Ida H. Early

Family: Husband, Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., daughters Linnet Husi and Rosalind Early; son-in-law Stan Husi

Education: B.A. sociology, 1974, University of Pennsylvania. Ida also did graduate work at Cornell University in educational administration from 1977-79.

Lives in: : Webster Groves, Mo.

Favorite vacation spot: London. I’m a city person,” Ida says. “I love visiting museums, seeing historic sites … and the cooler weather is nice!”

Favorite TV show: I love ’70s TV and BBC anything,” Ida says.

“You’re always either getting ready for a meeting or finishing one,” she says.

The key to her new position is being organized, which she says she is — in her work life. She also credits her staff, assistants Jane Stone and Sharon Britt, with helping her stay on top of her duties to the trustees, administration and WUSTL’s Women’s Society, which she coordinates.

The Women’s Society comprises more than 600 members who serve as the University’s ambassadors in the community. It, among other things, runs Bear Necessities, a store that sells WUSTL apparel and other items to raise money for scholarships and student programs.

When the group discovered that construction in the South 40 would make it difficult for people to find the store, Ida helped the society get help from students on how to best market Bear Necessities during the transition.

“Ida is attentive, calm, thoughtful, intelligent and very efficient,” says Joni Karandjeff, president of the Women’s Society. “When she makes a note on her pad to contact someone or to look into something, you can be sure that you will have an e-mail from her when you next check your messages.”

Ida spends what little free time she has learning German. Her daughter Rosalind, who graduated from WUSTL in 2003, taught in Vienna, Austria.

“I felt like a goofball in Vienna with her reading menus to me,” she says. “Now when I go back, I can read and order for myself. It’s very stimulating to learn a new language. It keeps the mind sharp!”

Not that Ida is in danger of brain atrophy — as secretary to the board, there’s plenty to keep her mind busy.