Evelyn Birkby began her decades-long careers as a radio homemaker in 1950. Her program, “Down a Country Lane,” focused on her life in rural Iowa. She continued to broadcast as a part of Kitchen-Klatter, a program with listeners in six states. She has written a weekly column for the local paper since 1949 and never misses a week. Her collection of radio homemaker materials in the Iowa Women’s Archives includes magazines, recipes, and audio recordings related to Kitchen-Klatter and other radio homemaker programs. Besides professional papers, the collection also has some of Birkby’s personal scrapbooks containing her correspondence with soldiers during World War II when she was working for the Methodist Church. Students in Matt Gilchrist’s rhetoric classes could see themselves in these personal pieces of Birkby’s life. Gilchrist, a senior lecturer in rhetoric and director of Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning at the University of Iowa, described how his students used Birkby’s papers in the classroom:
My Rhetoric students and I enjoyed so much our exploration of the Evelyn Birkby World War II Scrapbook, a part of the Iowa Women’s Archives. Students were fascinated by the correspondence Evelyn kept with soldiers fighting overseas and awaiting deployment in Stateside camps. Through the letters these soldiers sent back to Evelyn, students felt connected to the experiences of people their own age—in their early 20s—at a time of war many decades ago. The hopes, concerns, and emotions in these letters were similar to my students’ hopes, concerns, and
emotions. They read about dances and concerts, world events, visits home, plans for the future, and daily life as a soldier. Evelyn was a remarkable correspondent, keeping in regular contact with several young soldiers who always answered her letters. We could see friendships and courtships in the letters, and students were so curious to know more about the writers that they went out of their way to learn about Evelyn and the men to whom she wrote. They discovered Evelyn’s life story, including her career as a columnist and radio broadcaster. Through Evelyn’s website and Facebook page, students reached out to her, letting her know they were enjoying her letters in the Iowa Women’s Archives. We scheduled a phone call, and the whole class was enthralled by our conversation with Mrs. Birkby, who was then 94 and living in Sidney, Iowa. Students wrote papers and gave a speech about their explorations in the Archives. They also composed short videos that animated the letters and their research—you can watch one here: http://ir.uiowa.edu/ideal_archivesalive/30/.
I still hear from Evelyn, now 97, who shares her writing and recipes in The Valley News of Shenandoah, Iowa.
— Matthew Gilchrist, University of Iowa, 2017
This post is a part of the Iowa Women’s Archives’ 25th anniversary exhibit: 25 Collections for 25 Years: Selections from the Iowa Women’s Archives on display until December 29th at the Main Library Gallery. Gallery hours are available on the Main Library website.