Ida Lou Anderson had a rough start when she entered Washington State College in 1920. The lingering symptoms of childhood polio left her small (only four feet tall), frail, and humpbacked. That first semester, she felt so ostracized because of her appearance that she almost dropped out of school.
But a new professor saw her potential and changed her life. As chair of the drama and speech department, Nathanial E. Reeid was full of energy and enthusiasm. He coached students in speaking from the diaphragm, not the upper chest, and explained the importance of cadence, pitch, and stress. And he recognized Anderson’s exceptional oratorical talents and love of poetry, casting her in all theater productions.
After graduation, the young woman who felt like an outcast and nearly left school after one semester, quickly became one of the best-liked and most popular teachers on campus. In the very best way, just as Reeid helped Anderson reach her full potential, so too did she teach and mentor hundreds of students.
I think it’s fitting to rename the President’s Residence the Ida Lou Anderson House in recognition of her lasting impact as a faculty member. I suggested the nomination and wrote one of the supporting letters.
The President’s Residence is part of the early core of the Pullman campus. President E. A. Bryan wrote that the house was more than a residence for himself; it provided “opportunities of fulfilling … social responsibilities to the public which go with the office …” The Washington State University Board of Regents approved the renaming in November 2022. A formal renaming ceremony is slated for June 8, 2023.
Anderson (’24 English, ’27 Speech) grew up in Colfax, graduated from Colfax High School, and, until the age of eight, had an energetic childhood. In 1909, during a family trip to Tennessee, she contracted polio, leading to years of painful treatments, lingering symptoms, and an early death.
When she graduated from college, Anderson knew she wanted to teach. She attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent additional summers training at the University of California, Berkeley, and Boston College.
According to meeting minutes of the WSU Regents, Anderson earned significantly less than her male colleagues. Her $1,600 salary for nine and a half months could be supplemented by an additional $350 for private speech lessons. Male instructors earned a minimum of $1,800, and assistant professors, nearly all male, made $2,850.
In 1926, Anderson’s first year of teaching at WSC, a young man by the name of Egbert—who later changed his name—signed up for her class. Edward R. Murrow (’30 Speech) started college studying business administration but soon switched his major, taking 19 speech courses from Anderson. Outside of class, the two discussed literature, politics, duty, and ethics. The towering Murrow and the tiny Anderson were a familiar sight walking together across campus. Anderson aided Murrow’s already accomplished ability as a public speaker and prepared him for his career in radio. After his graduation, Anderson’s classes were so popular that students were turned away.
Her lifelong friend Mrs. Roy La Follette recalled that, on Sunday afternoons, Anderson would look at the clock as Murrow’s broadcast approached. “With her eyes closed she became a bundle of concentration as every muscle tensed to listen more intently to each inflection, each tone of the voice of her beloved friend and pupil.”
She continued, “Generally, her comments at the end of his broadcast would be full of pride and nothing but praise, but once in a while she would find some criticism of Mr. Murrow’s broadcast and immediately she would want to write him her thought or suggestion.”
While her popularity as a professor rose, her health declined. In 1939, she moved to Oregon, where her sister, Bessie Roe, and her mother could take care of her. Her sister remembered Anderson’s resignation from teaching was a “staggering blow.”
Letters of concern poured in. Murrow, now reporting from London, shipped her the most powerful radio available, with a note requesting she listen to him and tell him how he was doing. She answered with a telegram suggesting the pause in his sign-on: “This … is London.” It became his signature line.
President E. O. Holland wrote to Anderson in 1940: “You have been one of the valuable members of our faculty—so recognized not only by the students but also by the faculty itself.”
Holland continued: “I know that (Murrow) is most grateful to you for the enormous help you gave him when he was inexperienced and needed guidance. We accept your resignation with great reluctance, but we shall not forget the devoted and efficient service you have rendered this institution.”
Anderson replied, “I feel that my work in the State College has meant more to me than anything else I shall ever know in this life. I was given the opportunity to teach freely, to give the best that I knew to the people with whom I worked … I loved every minute of it, from the day I first walked into a classroom until the day I staggered out of one.”
She continued, “The air lanes are so full of voices I know. Those boys have been a comfort during this long, lonely, difficult winter.”
Anderson died September 16, 1941. She was nearly 41.
As news of her death spread among her devoted students and colleagues, Murrow sent $350 to pay for the publication of a book of memorials. In his contribution, he wrote that Anderson’s students knew “we had been in the presence of one who was, in the true sense of the word, greater than anyone we had met or were ever likely to meet.”
Holland reflected that it was great teachers, not just bricks and mortar, that made great universities. He noted, “In the fourteen years of her service here, this frail little woman was able to leave her deep and lasting imprint upon the lives of hundreds of students…
“WSC is stronger and the world is a finer place … as a result of the personal influence of this young woman upon the faculty and students of the State College of Washington.”
Trevor James Bond (’17 PhD History) is associate dean for digital initiatives and special collections at WSU Libraries.
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