When dozens of out-of-town Washington University Board of Trustee members descend upon St. Louis four times a year, they may face the unpredictability of late flights, lost luggage or bad weather. But there’s one certainty they can count on: an efficient two-day agenda that goes off without a hitch.
That’s because Ida H. Early, secretary of the board, has spent weeks checking and cross-checking meeting schedules, researching and organizing information, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” She intends to make sure those from out-of-town, as well as scores of local members, have everything they need.
“That the board meetings go smoothly is due in great part to Ida’s behind-the-scenes work,” says Stephen F. Brauer, chair of the university’s board and chairman of Hunter Engineering. “She really gets the job done.”
Early is eminently qualified in her roles as chief organizer and go-to person for all trustee questions, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.
“She coordinates our board meetings with great skill and attention, aided by her deep understanding of the university,” Wrighton says. “With an uncommon knowledge of the academic enterprise and the role of our trustees, Ida is uniquely suited to her leadership position. She is an outstanding resource for the university’s trustees, and I am grateful for her many contributions here.”
Since becoming secretary in 2007, Early has not only masterminded 14 Board of Trustee meetings — consisting of up to 80 people — she has also coordinated the efforts of a 600-member volunteer organization, the Washington University Women’s Society.
Wearing her Women’s Society hat, Early oversees that group’s two primary functions: raising scholarship money, primarily through the not-for-profit Bear Necessities gift store, and presenting an annual lecture program. To that end, Early plans the society’s monthly executive committee meetings and a variety of other events.
“I have kind of a quiet leadership role,” Early says. “It’s my job to make the university look really good to all these volunteers, be they board members or members of the Women’s Society.”
Working Her Way Up at WUSTL
After her husband Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences, accepted a faculty position, the pair arrived at Washington University in 1982. In tow were their now-grown daughters: Linnet Husi, of Houston, a middle school teacher with a 22-month-old son; and Rosalind Early, AB ’03, who’s pursuing a master’s in German literature at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
Ida Early, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate work in educational administration at Cornell University, entered the WUSTL workforce through the Olin Business School. At Olin, she quickly advanced from administrative assistant to the director of special projects, information and foundations.
From 1993 through 2007, Early held several posts in Alumni & Development Programs. During that period, Early also took time off to serve as the first African-American president of the Junior League of St. Louis from 1996 through 1998, and to accompany her husband on a 2001 sabbatical at the National Humanities Center in Durham, N.C.
In 2002, Early resumed her WUSTL career as senior associate director of development. In that position, she ensured the university’s Annual Fund met its goals through her focus on the Danforth Circle and Patrons levels of support — which make up a full quarter of the fund — as well as Reunion class giving and African-American alumni participation.
Early’s successes were stepping stones to the position of leadership she holds today.
“I feel like everything I’ve done before has prepared me for this job as secretary to the board,” she says.
Juggling and Balancing
“Traffic cop” and “juggler” weren’t literally in the job description, of course, when Early sought the board secretary post. But she quickly found that directing the flow of people and balancing multiple metaphorical balls in the air were key parts of her position.
Board meetings involve 13 committee gatherings as well as the main board assembly, and Early makes certain that members on more than one committee don’t get double- or even triple-booked.
“It’s a bit like doing a puzzle,” Early says. “You’re moving people through a lot of different pathways, hoping everyone comes together when they’re supposed to — and so far it’s worked out.”
That Early is shining in her newest role doesn’t surprise David T. Blasingame, AB ’69, MBA ’71, executive vice chancellor for Alumni & Development Programs. Blasingame, who has worked with Early since her days at Olin, praised her writing skills, team-player approach and ability to bring about order.
“She’s very organized; she thinks things through; and she goes about her work in such a gracious way,” Blasingame says. “She is very trustworthy and a great people person; she builds wonderful relationships for the university and with her colleagues.”
Early’s pleasant personality also strikes a chord with Ann B. Prenatt, vice chancellor for Human Resources, who has interacted with Early at the university and through volunteer work in the wider St. Louis community.
“When I think about Ida, I think about that big smile and the way she just seems to get things done without a lot of fanfare,” Prenatt says. “I’m sure there’s stress behind the scenes, but it isn’t evident in the way she conducts herself.”
While Early’s office — which includes two administrative coordinators — is “busy as it can be,” Early welcomes the challenges inherent in her job, which often involve navigating through changes and improvements.
For example, Early recently threw out the template for the Board of Trustees’ traditional one-day Friday meeting agenda and created a Thursday-afternoon–Friday-morning schedule, which ensures that out-of-towners can leave St. Louis in time to begin their weekend at home.
Early is happy to accommodate the Board of Trustees in any way she can because she knows they are critical to WUSTL’s success and prominence.
“The work they do is very important,” Early says. “They are entrusted with the care and stewardship of the university, so when they’re here, we make sure that every minute counts.”
Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.