Ida Early was just about to embark upon her first days of retirement after 38 years of dedicated professional service at Washington University in St. Louis when, without skipping a beat, she accepted the chairmanship of Women of Achievement’s 2021 virtual recognition celebration.
For a woman who has devoted her life to making a difference in the community, this was one more challenge she could not turn down. “Volunteers are the backbone of our society, and women volunteers deserve to be recognized for their role in building successful communities,” she says.
Honored in 2014 as a Woman of Achievement, Early was first introduced to volunteerism in 1987 at the Junior League of St. Louis. “Their goal is not only to address community issues but also to train volunteers so that they become effective leaders,” she says. “The league wants their members to populate the boards of community organizations and to be good at governance, fundraising, community building, communications, marketing and finance.”
As a past president of the league and a member of the board of directors for the Association of Junior Leagues International, headquartered in New York, she says, “We tried to build bridges and bring the best people to the table.”
Her active volunteerism throughout the years has included work with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Care and Counseling, the Miriam Foundation, Provident Behavioral Health, Churchill Center & School, the City of Webster Groves, Dance St. Louis, Girls Incorporated of St. Louis, the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis, Interfaith Housing Help, The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, the Missouri Community Service Commission, the Regional Arts Commission, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, the St. Louis County Library, the Saint Louis Zoo Friends Association, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, United Way, the Webster Groves School District and the Webster Community Arts Foundation.
After moving to St. Louis in 1982 with her husband, Gerald, she began her career as an assistant in the dean’s office at Wash U’s Olin Business School, where she worked for 12 years. After that, she became the first full-time development director for the School of Art and, later, the director of the annual fund. After taking a year’s sabbatical with her husband in North Carolina, she returned to become senior associate director of development and entrenched herself in what she calls “12 of my happiest and most challenging years.”
She shepherded The Women’s Society of Washington University, a volunteer organization that supports students through scholarships, grants, awards and a lecture series. She also took the helm of the university’s commencement program. In 2007, her dream job as secretary to the board of trustees opened, and she was beyond thrilled at being recommended to the chancellor for the role. She served in that position until her retirement this year, “working with some of the best and brightest community leaders in the U.S.”
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Early met her husband-to-be there while he was attending law school and she was working on campus. An American essayist and American culture critic, Early’s spouse is now the renowned Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, as well as a professor of English, African studies, African American studies and American culture studies at Wash U. “I couldn’t believe such a smart and interesting guy wanted to go out with me!” she reminisces.
They married in 1977 and have two daughters, Linnet and Rosalind, and two grandsons.
Early was looking forward to celebrating her retirement this year on a cruise with her “better half.” For obvious reasons, that didn’t occur, and she concludes: “When cruising returns, we’ll be on a ship. It is a lovely way to see the world, and I hope we can see a bit more of it!”
An innate storyteller and award-winning photographer and writer, Alice Handelman provides Ladue News readers with a glimpse into lives that enrich St. Louis.