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Sunderlin, Edith

Published onOct 15, 2021
Sunderlin, Edith

(December 24, 1901 – January 18, 2000)

Quick Facts

Part of the Child Development program and voice of “The Children’s Hour,” a daily feature on WOI.

Edith Marybelle Sunderlin was born on Christmas in Delmar, Iowa in 1901, but spent most of her childhood in Ames; her family relocated so that her brother could attend Iowa State College (now University). As a child, several of her friends were the children of faculty members who lived in campus faculty housing. Edith recalled roller skating around the campus walkways, and enjoying the Natural History Museum then located in Morrill Hall. She and her sisters, Gertrude and Olive, would follow their brother’s example and graduate from Iowa State College themselves. Edith received her bachelor’s degree in Home Economics in 1924.

After graduation, Sunderlin became a Home Economics teacher in Iowa public schools. She returned to school for a Master’s degree at the University of Iowa (Iowa City), which she received in 1931. Finding paid work during the depression proved difficult, so she left Iowa for an unpaid position at Purdue University, where she had the opportunity to work with and learn from leaders in the burgeoning field of child development.

In 1934, Sunderlin returned to Ames to become a teacher in the laboratory nursery school at Iowa State under the auspices of the Child Development program, which had split off from the Home Economics department just a few years prior.

Sunderlin’s former student, Katherine Madera Miller, wrote a tribute in 1995 for Sunderlin’s induction into Iowa State’s Plaza of Heroines. Madera Miller, who was her student from 1955 to ‘59, notes that Child Development, Home Economics, and most other departments supported the WOI radio station with content and commentary. Edith was invited to appear on Martha Duncan’s radio program, but was running late; in a flash of last-minute inspiration as she was about to leave for the studio, took along a children's book to read on the air. That impromptu reading led to Edith's most famous role as the Storybook Lady on WOI Radio. Her readings on Duncan’s show were popular, and listeners soon requested that she appear regularly. By 1939, Edith had her own Storybook Hour that aired three times per week and in 1942, her program, “The Children’s Hour,” became a daily feature on WOI. Eventually, the readings were recorded so they could be used and reused without the need for Edith to leave her students in the nursery school as often. Although her radio programs were the contribution that made Edith into an Iowa celebrity, she had a wealth of other professional contributions to the University and the field of early childhood development.

The Child Development program thrived under Sunderlin’s leadership, and she herself taught most of its course offerings, developing at least one of her own courses. Frustrated by her students’ lack of access to structured training in children’s books, she approached the English Department about a collaborative course in children’s literature. The department dismissed the idea, arguing that children’s books did not constitute real literature. Edith refused to give up on what she felt was necessary training for emerging teachers, so, with the English Department’s approval, she developed her own Child Development course in children’s literature. This course was still included in the curriculum in the Iowa State’s Department of Human Development and Family studies decades later.

Edith’s tenure as nursery school director saw the program grow and develop in professionalism, moving across campus several times as demand for child care services grew. Her influence in the field of early childhood education was so great that she was invited to participate in the development of the groundbreaking Kaiser Shipyard Child Care Program that operated during World War II in Richmond, California. She turned this position down in favor of staying at Iowa State and continuing her work in her home state.

Sunderlin felt that practical experience was integral to a proper education in child development. Katherine Madera Miller noted that Edith often drove her students from Ames to Des Moines herself, without reimbursement, so that students could do practicums in local schools and have access to other professional experiences outside the classroom. Miller herself went on to serve as head teacher in the Iowa State laboratory nursery school in 1964.

Sunderlin served as director of the nursery school until her retirement in 1967. Through the mid-1960s, Iowa State served as a center for Peace Corps training for Latin American countries. In 1963, Sunderlin participated in a Peace Corps training programs for groups of volunteers assigned to Uruguay. Sunderlin was the child development lead on the project; her colleagues Selma Duncan ran food and nutrition training, and Emelda Kunau directed studies in home furnishings.

Sunderlin was active in the National Association for Nursery Education and a founding member of the Iowa Association for Nursery Education. Both organizations are large, dynamic professional groups still in existence today as the National and Iowa Associations for the Education of Young Children or (NAEYC and IAEYC). The much beloved educator and radio personality passed away in 2000, at the age on 98. She is buried at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selected Sources

Ferguson, Elizabeth S. and Ercel S. Eppright. A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University: A proud past, a lively present, a future promise. Ames: The Iowa State University Home Economics Alumni Association, 1971.

Miller, Katherine Madera. “Edith M. Sunderlin.” Iowa State University Plaza of Heroines.

Life dates:

Gross, Dorothy (1940) "Children's Hour Is on the Air," The Iowa Homemaker: Vol. 20 : No. 5 , Article 2.
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