Washington People: Ida Early

Honoring one of the heartbeats of the university

Ida Early has served in many roles at Washington University over 38 years, including directing the Commencement ceremony. (Courtesy photo)

The year was 1981. The Earlys were a young married couple with great ambitions. Gerald was in graduate school at Cornell University, and Ida had just given birth to their second child. After interviewing with the Modern Language Association, Gerald was offered teaching positions by both the University of Nebraska and Washington University in St. Louis. The two had to decide which university would be best for their family. The decision was a clear one for Ida.

“We were in Ithaca, New York, for five years with all that snow and cold,” Ida Early said. “I’m a Texan, and I had to get out of the snow. I was like, ‘Which university is more southern?’ That’s how we picked.”

As life would have it, the Early family made the trek to St. Louis in January, only to be welcomed a month later by the blizzard of 1982.

“We thought, ‘Oh no, we didn’t move south enough!’” Early said with a laugh.

Thankfully, the couple decided to stick it out. While her husband began his tenure track at the university as a professor of English in Arts & Sciences, Early focused on raising their young daughters. But as someone committed to education, she couldn’t stay away long.

“I was coming here as a new mother. We had a 6-week-old and a 2-year-old, so my focus was on children and getting settled,” Early said. “Eventually, I did want to go back to work, and I had always been in higher education.”

A storied career

Early pursued a part-time position that September at what is now known as Olin Business School. The role allowed her to ease into her career at Washington University. She began work as an assistant in the dean’s office.

Early’s work ethic guided her into many spaces at the university as time went on, beginning when Olin’s former dean, Robert L. Virgil, promoted her to a full-time position on his staff. Her knack for writing and marketing made Early the perfect addition; writing speeches, proposals and marketing the bachelor’s and master’s in business administration programs.

When Virgil retired in 1993, Early applied for and was offered the first of several roles with what was then Alumni and Development. She worked as director of development and alumni programs at the School of Art, now the Sam Fox School, and director of development for the former Gallery of Art.

After a sabbatical to serve as president of the Junior League of St. Louis, Early returned to the university as the director of annual giving programs during the Campaign for Washington University. Early was in charge of the Eliot Society, often traveling with faculty speakers for alumni events.

“I got to travel quite a bit with our faculty, who are outstanding,” Early recalled. “I met alumni in many parts of the U.S. while I led the annual fund, alumni who actively work to bring greater attention to the university in their home cities. I just feel fortunate to have been able to get to know so many people associated with WashU.”

Early has worked with various schools and programs throughout her time, giving her a unique perspective.

“I have been here long enough that I have seen the university transform from being well-known regionally to being well-respected internationally. It has taken a lot of work over time, and it has taken great leadership. We have been blessed with great chancellors,” Early said. “It has been an honor and a privilege to see all of this change.”

Eventually, Early applied to be secretary to the Board of Trustees, her dream job. With the support of her boss at the time, retired executive vice chancellor David Blasingame, Early became board secretary in 2007.

“The trustees of the university are wonderful men and women. They give so much of their time, their energy and their treasure to help the university fulfill its mission and attract the best students and faculty,” Early said.

When Early created the job description for an administrative assistant for her staff, she was sure to list a special qualification: “equanimity.”

“It’s so much like Ida to place a value on ‘mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation,’”  said Ann Marie Ruhlin, former administrative assistant to Early. “In the midst of chaos, Ida would always bring her inner calm, sense of humor and generosity of spirit to the toughest of days. We laughed much more than we struggled, and that was due to her leadership and warmth.”

Early also took over the role of directing Commencement when the former director, Jim Burmeister, retired.

Commitment to the Women’s Society

Early serves as university coordinator for the Women’s Society, a volunteer group that contributes to many causes on campus, including Black Anthology, the African Film Festival, the STEM program Catalysts for Change and WashU Racing. The group also annually awards the Harriet K. Switzer Leadership Award to a senior woman, and the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship to two students transferring from St. Louis Community College.

Early with fellow members of the Women’s Society of Washington University at the Chancellor’s Lecture and Luncheon in June 2014. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

“Ida continually touched the lives of members with her wise counsel, graciousness and readiness to take on important projects,” said Sharon Britt, administrative coordinator of the Women’s Society. “She is so highly respected and accomplished that a common expression running through the years has been, ‘Let’s ask Ida!'”

Even as she heads into retirement in early July, Early plans to continue to engage in the initiatives of the Women’s Society as a lifelong member.

A family affair

Early’s time at the university has involved her family as well. The couple’s oldest daughter, Linnet, attended Saint Louis University. However, she helped out during phone-a-thons at WashU when Early was director of the annual fund. The couple’s youngest daughter, Rosalind, is an alumna who now works in the Office of Public Affairs as features editor of Washington magazine.

“I learned a lot watching my mom lead at WashU, in the community and at her church,” Rosalind Early said. “She leads with compassion and kindness. Plus, she does it all with such panache. I’d be running around frazzled if I took on as much as she does, but she always makes it look easy. I think it’s because she really loves being of service, and she really loves WashU.”

Early’s husband, Gerald, is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences.

“Ida has always been a dedicated and conscientious person,” Gerald Early said. “In this respect, she is a very good person to work for because she has integrity. Ask the people who worked for her. They not only liked her but trusted her, and she made them feel comfortable to be around her.

“Ida also has the rare judgment of knowing what to take seriously and what not to,” he said. “That is invaluable.”

Ida and Gerald Early attend the Campaign for Washington University gala in December 2018. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Early grew up in Dallas. She was inspired by a resilient mother who had a 40-year teaching career and a hardworking father who retired from Southwestern Bell.

She watched her mother press to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working and raising children.

“Isn’t everybody’s mother driving an hour to the University of North Texas for night school,” Early said.

A tough act to follow

Early will officially retire Thursday, July 2. However, her commitment to community service and involvement will continue long after her time as a university employee ends.

Early will be able to spend more time with family in this next chapter. Her grandchildren Stanley, 11, and William, 7, moved to St. Louis two years ago.

Ida Early (right) is greeted by Chancellor Emeritus Mark S. Wrighton at the May 2019 Commencement ceremony. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/ Washington University)

During her career, Early has participated in the university’s strong commitment to scholarship opportunities; worked with students at various schools; directed Commencement ceremonies; and connected with alumni and long-standing contributors.

“It has been quite the journey for someone who came here because they wanted to leave snow,” Early said.

“WashU is one of the best places in the world in my opinion, whether you’re a student, faculty or staff,” she said. “It’s been welcoming, encouraging, it’s pushed me to do better, learn more and be the best that I can be, and I just hope that will continue. I’m pretty sure it will, for everyone who comes after me.”

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