(September 19, 1895 — January 23, 1975)
Radio and television host of “Homemaker's Half Hour.”
Eleanor Wilkins was born and raised in upstate New York. After graduating from Oneida High School, Wilkins attended Oregon State College. She earned a BS (1919) in home economics. While a student, Wilkins worked to help pay for expenses. After teaching for two years as a vocational homemaking teacher in Seattle, Washington and in Arizona, she married F. Scott Wilkins. Wilkins was an agronomy and research professor of soils at Iowa State College (now University). In the midst of the Great Depression, her husband F. Scott Wilkins died in 1936. At the time of his death, they had two young children, Donald, age 13, and Joanne, age 8. After her husband's death, Wilkins began working for two years as the storeroom manager for the Food and Nutrition Department at Iowa State. In May of 1938, she began working half-time at WOI Radio, doing a 5 minute daily talk on meal planning, which eventually came to be known as "Martha Says to You." WOI Radio was run by Iowa State University from its beginnings, and would air numerous local radio shows. A year after beginning at WOI Radio, in the fall of 1939, Wilkins began as the hostess of "Homemaker's Half Hour." Wilkins would work at WOI until her retirement, often working with Iowa State's Department of Home Economics. Early on while working for WOI, Wilkins had been given the name Martha Duncan by Andy Woolfries of WOI, and would be known as Martha Duncan from then on in her professional life.
Two years after becoming the hostess of “Homemaker's Half Hour,” Wilkins became Women's Editor for WOI in 1941, which included both hosting and directing the oldest women's program in the Midwest, "Homemaker's Half Hour." Broadcast since 1926, "Homemaker's Half Hour" was one of the first shows in the nation to feature news and information related to home economics and was on the air every weekday from 1930 until it ended, with Wilkins' retirement, in 1966. The show often utilized the research, faculty, and staff of the Department of Home Economics for much of its content. Soon after she became the Women's Editor, and with the help of home economics staff and the staff of WOI, Wilkins helped modify "Homemaker's Half Hour" so that it would better represent Iowa State and its activities. Guests on “Homemaker's Half Hour” often included Iowa State faculty and staff. Notables on “Homemaker's Half Hour” would include individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Carl Sandburg's wife, Lilian Sandburg.
In addition to the popular “Homemaker's Half Hour,” Wilkins directed and hosted many other programs on WOI. During World War II Wilkins directed a program called "The Market Basket" in which she advised women on how to use ration points. Also as Martha Duncan, Wilkins conducted "The Women's Forum" every afternoon from 1941 until 1964. "The Women's Forum" provided women with information on current events and politics, and included viewpoints from foreign students at Iowa State. In addition to the shows produced specifically for women, Wilkins participated in other popular WOI radio programs. She read for several years on the "WOI Book Club," a half-hour show featuring someone reading a book. She was also the first hostess of the WOI radio program "60 Plus," first aired in 1959.
When WOI-TV was first beginning in the 1950s, Wilkins worked with Iowa State's Department of Home Economics to develop some of the first filmed shows for women, including the first home economics information program on Iowa television shortly after WOI-TV began in 1950. She also developed the popular WOI-TV guest interview program called "Martha's Notebook."
Wilkins was given many awards throughout her career. She was awarded the Epsilon Sigma Phi (a national honor society for Extension Service workers) Length of Service Award, was the first recipient from the Des Moines Alumnae of Theta Sigma Phi (now the Association for Women in Communications) of the Jane Arden Award for outstanding work in the field of communications in Iowa in 1959, and received from Theta Sigma Phi the Matrix award in 1966.
Her publications included "I'm a Good Mother-in-Law," Farm Journal (October 1948) and "My Daughter Made Me Over," Farm Journal (August 1949).
Martha Duncan's last program, and the last program of "Homemaker's Half Hour," aired on Thursday, June 30, 1966. She retired from WOI on July 1, 1966.
Ferguson, Bess (Storm). "The Woman Inside Martha Duncan." The Iowa State Alumnus (April 1957): 4-5.
Iowa State University Information Service, "Martha Duncan, 'Homemaker's Half Hour,' Approach Final Broadcast." Iowa State University Press Release (June 1966).
Iowa State University Information Service, "Martha Duncan (Mrs. Eleanor Wilkins) Is Dead." Iowa State University Press Release (January 1975).
Iowa State University WOI Radio and Television Biographical Files, RS 5/6/2, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.
Sealine, Marilyn. "'I can do it'; and she did." Ames Daily Tribune, June 30, 1966.